If someone pitched a roguelite to you, odds are you wouldn’t expect it to be an extreme sports biking game. But that's exactly what developer RageSquid has delivered with its procedural downhill excursion. An odd pairing at first blush maybe, but does the game deliver the goods?
Descenders sees you careening down a collection of hills, as you make a mad dash towards the finish line, trying not to crash too often. One of Descenders most unique characteristics is the incorporation of roguelite elements. When you hop into career – after a very brief tutorial – these inspirations are on full display. Upon completion of your first track, you’ll find yourself staring down an overworld map, upon which there are many nodes to pick from. These all represent new tracks, and they display the difficulty you can expect to run into should you select them. The difficulty is decided by how steep a given track may be, how curvy it is, as well as how many opportunities there are for stunts – which tends to mean more obstacles.
Don’t get too comfortable seeing the same things in the same place next run, though, as the whole game is procedural. While procedural experiences can get a bad rap, it’s implemented quite well here. The tracks generally adhere to a similar structure within each biome – more on these later – with the only downside being that the number of assets made for the game stand out a bit when you start seeing them over and over. It doesn’t necessarily impact the experience, but it is noticeable. Anyway, you choose a series of connected tracks that lead into one another before winding your way to the “boss jump”, in which you have to make a herculean leap across a horrifying distance, often jumping over something ludicrous, be it a train, or much later in the game, a volcano.
It’s up to you to try and survive these jumps, as well as any other mishaps along the way. You have a life pool that dwindles the more you crash, and should you run out of lives, it’s time to start again from the very beginning. But remember, this is a roguelite. If you complete the bonus objective on a boss jump three times, you actually unlock a shortcut and start at the next biome, skipping some of the “busy work” if you’re more interested in seeing what the game has to offer later down the line. This is really great as the game’s biomes get progressively more interesting the further you progress.
You start in a fairly mundane “highlands” region, before heading to a more complicated – and sneakily the most challenging – forest region, then some desert canyons, and finally finishing things up in snowy mountains. While the terrains get rougher, it’s largely left up to you how challenging things get, as you will usually have access to some pretty easy tracks on the way to boss jump. But the challenging tracks are where the fun really begins. What starts as a leisurely ride down a hill in the early levels leads to a frantic pace where choosing to stray from the official track is the difference between life and death.
The obstacles that you’ll run into vary from biome to biome as well. Some of the settings emphasise nature, where you’re more likely to crash into a pack of trees than anything else, whereas some of the later ones, such as “canyons”, have oil derricks strewn about to tumble over. Each obstacle usually has a special point reward related to it, which you’ll need for either new levels or for the sponsors that award you extra gear.
And that’s to say nothing of the game’s second set of biomes – locked until you accrue a fairly substantial amount of experience – featuring pyramids, favelas, and the aforementioned volcano. The baseline challenge is much more significant here, but the amount of points you earn and the rate of unlocks generally goes up as well. While the unlocks are purely cosmetic, there are a lot of them, and even getting a mere palette swap is rewarding. Being decked out in all purple only to crash headlong into a pyramid at 100kph is the height of luxury after all.
There’s honestly not too much more to the gameplay. You careen downhill on a variety of landscapes and try not to crash, and keep going until you’re dead. This simplicity allows the game to really lean into the “just one more run” mindset, and for those seeking a little something extra, there are some bonus tracks that are more like trials bike courses, inspired by the show Wipeout. And they are brutally challenging until you learn the intricacies of the controls, which are quite intuitive, but hard to master.
Everything moves how you’d expect; turns feel weighty without being sluggish, angling the bikes for jumps and tricks is maybe a little looser than it should be, but it adds to the fun. But the track selection in most cases means you can avoid the areas you don’t feel confident in until you’re ready to take them on, somewhere down the line. It’s all rather slick, much like the presentation.
While the game isn’t by any means a graphical powerhouse, the environments look decent, especially the stuff right around the track itself. If you stretch beyond that, the tile-sets being reused are very noticeable, especially on the mountains. But the occasional modifiers of rough weather – be it rain or a sandstorm – as well as moonlit night races are both exquisite. The biggest issue with the presentation is actually screen tear. It’s not a small issue either. It's there for almost every single moment of gameplay, and while it’s not terribly distracting, it’s still constantly present. Lateral camera motion aggravates it especially, and while it mercifully doesn’t drop the frame rate or induce nausea, it’s not exactly ideal.
Descenders is a solid experience if you’re looking for a time waster that you’ll return to over and over. While constant screen tearing issues hamper its presentation quite a bit, the game has solid controls, as well as simple though endlessly entertaining mechanics. While the controls aren’t the tightest we’ve seen, they do everything adequately and contribute to the fun. Add in the wide range of biomes to race through, including some more wacky ones towards the end of the game, and it makes for one fun package. And that’s to say nothing of the fun little gimmicks, like the first-person mode and the trials-style courses. Descenders has everything you could possibly want in a downhill cycling roguelite.