While Descenders offers a fun downhill mountain-biking romp, it’s constantly held back by the Switch’s lackluster hardware.
Before playing it on the Switch for this review, I’ve put a ton of hours into Descenders on PC where it shines. It’s a thrilling title, one that brings back my fond memories of Dave Mirra’s Freestyle BMX on the original PlayStation and fuses it with the adrenaline of fast-paced downhill mountain biking. And it does all of that within the context of what is essentially a roguelike game. It’s a game like no other I’ve played in quite a while, and it benefits from that newness.
But those are my impressions of the game on PC, and we’re talking about the game’s Switch port, so there are obviously some differences. Yes, Descenders is the same game on Switch–it’s the same exciting, downhill stunting thrill–but the final experience has inevitably been held back by the hardware it’s running on. I didn’t go into Descenders’ Switch version expecting a one-to-one conversion – some things were always going to get mucked up in the transition. But rather than a clean landing, it feels like the game’s arrival on this console ended up being a wipeout.
First and foremost, Descenders is a roguelike game, but a very different one compared to what we usually think of the genre. Instead of facing monsters in dungeons or demons in Hell (read, Hades), players will face steep, treacherous slopes and ramps begging to be jumped off. Although those aren’t the real enemies in Descenders, a game where you ride a bike downhill, nor is gravity.
Most of the time the one “enemy” that players will curse the most will be themselves, or at least that was my experience. “Why did I try for that second flip” and “why didn’t I pump the breaks there” ended up being the catchphrases of my time with the game. Instead of having some baddie send you back to the beginning of a run, it’s always yourself, and while I can’t tell if that’s more brutal, it certainly demonstrates that Descenders is a game that’s easy to play but very difficult to master.
Every run in Descenders starts with selecting a stage. The first area among these is the Highlands, an area characterized by rolling green hills, castles to stunt off of and a rideable Stonehenge. It’s a basic, simple introduction to the mechanics of the game; it gives players the easiest opportunities to try out stunts, isn’t cluttered with hazards, and doesn’t punish players for veering off the path.
But the game’s difficulty curve isn’t exactly smooth; it’s more like a craggy mountain. Every level that makes up a stage is procedurally generated, so players can go from a simple ride down to a finish line to a radical, 65 KM/H blast down a mountain path filled with twists and turns. At some points, this translates to the game being incredibly unforgiving – there are generated areas I played through that simply felt unfair, and that persisted throughout every part of the game. Stages cap off with boss levels, a usual track that features a larger-than-usual jump with a fair bit of spectacle. They can range from leaps over watchtowers and moving trains to trips to the tops of pyramids. These grand finales aren’t usually as challenging as the tracks leading up to them and offer some of the best spectacles in the game. It’s genuinely hard to have a bad time doing a no-handed backflip through a ring of fire over a moving train.
Therein lies the second focus of Descenders, the stunts: the things that made me look and feel cool while also ending most of my runs. Pulling off tricks is simple enough, and comes pretty naturally if you’ve ever played a biking game before – and they look stylish as hell to boot. There’s nothing quite like pulling off a Superman backflip and landing cleanly, and the game rewards players for pulling off these risky moves. Doing tricks, or really doing anything dangerous, nets players Rep, points that can be earned over the course of a run. Functionally, Rep is just a way for players to measure how runs are going – more points obviously being better. It can’t be spent on anything, and most of the time can be ignored. That being said, players will want to at least reach 100,000 rep to unlock a second group of stages that are much more interesting than the first. That’s not to say the first batch is bad, just that they get tiresome after repeated attempts.
During runs, Rep does have another function though. Earning enough Rep nets players crew members, each of which offers different passive boosts to your rider or changes stages coming up. Using these wisely is key to making it further in a run or just hitting a high score. Crew members that can bump up the power of bunny hops or speed up the speed of aerial flips and turns make stunting across tracks easy, while others focus on making levels easier to navigate with wider paths or fewer hazards.
In all, Descenders is a fun, distracting title. I’ve always enjoyed booting it up to kill some time, and now being able to bring it anywhere has been a blessing. It’s incredibly easy to get started, complete a couple of levels, and then put it down to pick back up later. That being said, you’re not going to want to play this game with the Switch’s Joy-Cons all the time. I had a ton of problems accurately moving my bike or timing bunny hops with the mini controller’s tiny joysticks, something I never faced when playing it with my Xbox 360 controller on PC. If you’ve got the option, using a more traditional controller is absolutely the way to go.
The issues unique to the game’s Switch version don’t end there. It feels as though Descenders was held back by the hardware on the portable console – nothing looks or feels as good as it should. The game, which I’ve experienced running well over 60fps, instead runs at 30, and its visuals are heavily downgraded. You don’t have to play the game on other platforms to know that either – look at the comparison below of the game’s loading screen for Forest levels and how they actually appear.
But the worst change the game has gone through on its way to the Switch is its load times. Descenders is a game about speed and accessibility. I said earlier how much of a joy it is to pick up the game and start right away, but didn’t mention that I would be waiting at least 30 seconds to load up a level that takes me 45 seconds to finish. Way, way too much time is spent on loading screens in this version of the game; it completely breaks up the fast-paced action and momentum I would carry into the next level.
Again, Descenders is a great game, and if you’re looking for a fun, easy way to kill time, it can do all that and more. But this certainly isn’t the best way to experience it. It’s the same game, but diluted, held back by the platform it’s running on. I could do as many cool flips and have as many crazy runs as I wanted, but I always ended up wanting to play the game on PC instead for an all-around better experience. I can heartily recommend Descenders to just about anyone, but will point in every other direction before the game’s Switch version.