I have a guilty pleasure for games like Trials, adjusting your balance as you fly into the sky and perform tricks, trying not to break your neck as you come back down to Earth. Recently I’ve been playing through two games which utilise this concept but present it in a whole new style and format, today I’m looking at Descenders on the PS4. Boasting an impressive amount of content and gameplay which will have you addicted within minutes, is this game worth picking up today?
Descenders was developed by RageSquid, the creators of Action Henk – yet another highly addictive racing and stunt-based game. Although, this game breaks free of the 2.5D perspective and sees you embarking on extreme courses set in a procedurally generated 3D environment. The publisher, No More Robots, have just started releasing their titles on the PlayStation and this game is their first physical retail release, from what I’ve gathered.
As this is new territory for the publisher, there are certain things I can overlook, but there’s a rather serious issue which has almost made me stop playing which needs to be addressed. Read on to find out what this is and why I still highly recommend you pick this game up…
Descenders is a procedurally generated game in which you have to simply make it from point A to point B on a map without failing too many times. Sound simple? Well, it isn’t. The main game consists of a map which allows you to pick which stage you wish to take on – once you’ve completed the first event. Each generated level has a rating for the Steepness, Curves and Stunts which you’ll find within that stage, giving you a little warning beforehand of what to expect. Each time you complete a stage you can pick another which branches from the ones you’ve already done, trying to make your way to the ‘Boss’ level before it gets dark (as it’s very hard to see once it gets dark).
Not only are the courses procedurally generated but the game also generates a bonus objective whilst it’s being created, allowing you to gain an extra health bar if you successfully make it to the finish line and have completed the goal. These objectives range from simply performing certain tricks a number of times to doing a few ‘near misses’ or reaching speeds you really shouldn’t be going at if you care for your safety. They add an extra layer of fun and excitement into the game as you never know what you’re going to get and it forces you to not simply dash to the finish line (unless your goal is to literally get there as fast as possible and beat a time).
Once you’ve reached the ‘boss’ level and made it safely to the finish line without any bumps or bruises, you’ll move on to the next environment as you start your new journey towards the next ‘boss’. Upon doing this, you get a token which confirms you’ve made it to the next set of stages. If you do this three times (so complete that particular boss stage three times), you gain the ability to start your run from the next stage instead of from the beginning. Descenders contains two sets of four environments to work your way through, each one progressively becoming much harder and bumpy to traverse.
So, is that it? Yes and no. Every so often you’ll come across various Crew Members as your completing a stage, allowing you to pick from a selection of perks. These include bonuses such as letting you hit the ground harder before you fall off your bike, making the tracks slightly wider, and making your bike spin faster when it’s in the air. In a way, Descenders is almost Rogue-like in its mechanics, only the kind which resets all of your boosts and abilities each time you start again.
On top of the Crew Members, you also have various stage-based effects which change the gameplay. There’s a helpful stage which will give you a bonus health pack if you make it to the end, foggy and stormy weather which affects your vision and performance, extreme levels with maxed out steepness, curves and stunts, and Sponsor-based events. The Sponsor events allow you to side with one of three sponsors as you try and complete a difficult track whilst achieving the objective they give you – complete enough and you can have them as your official sponsor going forward.
The combination of the procedurally generated courses, the various weather effects, the Crew Members you find as you ride around, and the random objectives you’re given, helps create a unique experience every time you start a new game, making the whole experience very addictive and hard to stop playing. Sure, the ‘boss level’ is usually the same ‘boss’ and layout, but all the others are unique and a surprise.
Also, just to clear things up – when I say ‘boss’ (it’s the term the game gives it), I don’t mean you’re facing a giant monster whilst riding your bike – although that would be quite epic. It simply refers to a ‘boss jump’ within that stage, a much bigger and more elaborate jump than you see in any other stage. For example, imagine jumping hundreds of feet into the air and jumping over a moving train on a bridge, or thrusting yourself to scale a pyramid in one swift jump…
If you just want to jump in and play Descenders for a short session on a daily basis (as I do), then you can also enter the Daily Challenge. These are pre-generated courses for you to play, allowing you to move on after each one like you do in the main game, the difference here is that you only have one shot at them – lose all your lives and you can’t play them until the new ones the following day. This mode has its own leaderboard, so you can try to get within the top 10 every day.
Let’s play dress-up!
One of the things which makes Descenders very addictive is the amount of loot you acquire as you complete objectives and increase your ‘rep’. You can unlock new bikes, helmets, goggles, shirts, pants, horns, flags, and hats, there must be hundreds of items as well as unique sponsor gear which you unlock by completing specific daily goals assigned to you once you’ve appeased the sponsor three times in a Sponsor Event. None of these actually changes your stats or gives you any extra advantage on the track – which is a shame – but it does let you pimp out your rider and make them unique
What I found quite funny is that you can tick a box to play as a female and the only difference I could see was that you now have long hair. Your face is obscured by the goggles, so you can’t see the character model anyway, but the only difference I can see is the long curly hair that looks like an 80s Rock Star!
Freeride and multiplayer
If you want to play a game which you have some control over, you can opt to try out the Freeride mode. In here you can choose from a wide selection of options such as what World (environment) you wish to play on – as long as you’ve reached it in the main game, the time of day, if there’s a path or not, how much health you have, and sliders for each of the three terrain settings. You can, if you wish, even build a custom Crew list with as many people you want – again, as long as you’ve seen them in-game at some point.
Alternatively, you can enter a seed number (like in Minecraft) and play the generated track based on that, or play a ‘bonus track’ which is apparently unlocked by completing certain challenges in the main game – I’ve not unlocked any yet.
If you want to play with friends, or strangers, online then you can jump into the multiplayer lobby and either pick an open game, enter the password and join your friend, or create your own session and wait for others to join you. You have the same settings as in Freeride mode and can customise the levels or play through the game just like in the main game, picking a new track after each stage. Even if you’re not playing in multiplayer, the game will show you other people on the same courses as you, as a ghost. I’m not sure if they’re live or pre-recorded ghost data, but you can disable them if you find them distracting.
Big Red Balls?
No, I’m not talking about the swelling you’ll obtain by landing hard after some of the crazy jumps you’re encouraged to perform, I’m talking about Wipeout, the insane assault course game show on TV. Why am I talking about Wipeout? Descenders has its own version of this under the guise of ‘Bikeout’ – or should I say Bikeout 1, 2 and 3! That’s right, the developers have included three incredibly difficult custom tracks which are based upon the colourful show which loves to knock people into the water as they try to manoeuvre around the various obstacles.
I’ve tried all three of these and I can’t even get past the first obstacle the majority of the time, I think I’ve got past it less than five times in the many hours I’ve spent playing the game. The design and homage to the show are great, it really feels like you’re competing in the show – only whilst mounted on a BMX – but it’s not for those who get annoyed or give up quickly. These will really test your patience, timing, skills, and jumping abilities.
If these aren’t for you, there’s another Freeride custom map called Stoker Bike Park – a massive forest with lots of jumps, stunts, steep hills and obstacles. There was another map added in a previous patch but it’s been removed as there was a few issues with it, but it should be coming back soon. However, I honestly can’t recommend playing this map or the one that was removed – it’s time to talk about the issue I stated in the first part of my review, the issue which has almost made me walk away from the game…
Descenders is a fast game, you can easily pick up speeds of over 60Mph (I think at one point I went over 100 as well), so your reaction time has to be spot-on and the game has to give you precise and instant control over your character as you zip past the trees. For the most part, the game handles this okay. The first ‘World’ has a few trees and is rather flat, meaning you don’t go too fast and there aren’t too many assets to load in, so the performance holds up with the odd framerate dip here and there but nothing too major that ruins the game.
Then you get to the second World, the forest. Hundreds of trees and very steep levels which force you to go off-road and fly past them with only a few inches between life and death. This is where the game gets a little disappointing. The performance in this World is really bad, the framerate dips, you feel like you don’t have full control over the bike at times, I had a few stutters, and it can feel choppy as you’re trying to maintain control. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still playable and you can come out of it alive, but it really doesn’t feel fun to play.
The devs have put out a few patches since I raised this on Twitter but the issue is still there. I was advised turning off SuperSampling may work but it didn’t – neither did moving to a base PS4 as it was even worse on there. I’m hoping the performance is resolved in the near future – maybe adding in a dynamic resolution scale to maintain the framerate, or reducing it for that particular World would work?
This brings me to the Stoker Bike Park and the one they removed the other day – they perform horribly on the PS4 Pro. I don’t like talking bad about games but this is a game in which you need to maintain control and you seriously can’t. As soon as you jump off the first ramp, the game drops to Lichdom: Battlemage levels – it’s practically unplayable making me worry about the Switch version if I’m being honest. However, the publisher has had more experience with the Switch and Xbox than the PS4, so I’m hoping these are just a few issues they’ve overlooked and can fix.
The only issue I have with the technical side – aside from the performance issues I stated above, is the loading times. However, as Descenders is fully procedurally generated, or based on a seed (like the daily challenges), the game has to ‘build’ the level each time you select it. Had the game been shipped with pre-made tracks, I imagine those would load much faster. So, I got used to the time it takes to load a new course.
One of the really cool things I loved about Descenders was the action replay mode. I don’t usually dabble with the replay but it’s essentially the photo mode as well. You can slow down or speed up the playback, save it for later, play with a number of camera modes – including first-person (which you can also use when playing the game) and enabling advanced options so you can effectively zoom right out and beyond the boundaries of the map – and show or hide the HUD. It’s not ‘technically’ an actual photo mode with filters and special effects, but it does allow you to get some good closeups if you’re into taking pictures.
Visually I like the look of the game, there are a lot of accessories and customisation options (once unlocked) and every rider will look different despite having the same body and head – bar the curly hair if you’re a woman. The various Worlds all have their own theme and are also very nice to look at as you faceplant into them when trying to do a triple flip in the air! Some textures are low quality if you stop and get up close (although I doubt you’ll be doing that in this game) and various physics glitches can happen – such as getting your limbs or body stuck in the wall if you smash into it too fast – but they’re all rather funny.
The music within Descenders is provided by Liquicity Records and is a very good soundtrack. It fits the mood of the game perfectly and gets you pumped for trying to meet your objectives. The game itself advises that they’ve used the songs with permission so you won’t have issues with copyright claims on platforms such as Youtube and Twitch – but this isn’t the case anymore. Due to the current events with COVID-19, they’ve started monetising their songs to help with their loss in income. So, if you upload a stream or Let’s Play, it’s going to get claimed so any ad revenue goes to them and not you. If that’s an issue, you can DM @RageSquid and they can get you placed on a whitelist so they don’t claim your videos.
Descenders is a fast, exciting, and ever-changing adrenaline-pumping addictive game which I find hard to put down. The game on the PS4 suffers from some slowdown, jerky moments and unresponsive controls, especially in levels with a lot of assets, but I still found the overall experience fun to play. There’s a bunch of difficult and long-winded trophies which will keep you busy within the procedurally generated main game, plus the multiplayer, Freeride, Daily Challenge, and bonus custom Bike Parks – you’ll never run out of things to do within the game. I play this game daily and every session feels new and exciting.
Although the performance issues did affect my overall opinion of the game, Descenders isn’t ‘unplayable’, it’s just not very fun to play certain courses. However, I’m hoping these issues will be resolved in the near future. If they are, I’ll return to this review and update accordingly.
Bonus video – here’s one of my runs whilst playing the game. I’ve had to mute the music as it was blocking it from being shown in a few countries:
- - Always something to do whether you're taking on the main game again, playing Freeride, or trying to master the Bikeout course
- - The music is very fitting and gets you in the mood for going fast!
- - Lots of customisation options (once unlocked)
- - The Bikeout parks are great but they're very hard
- - It may be challenging but that only increases the satisfaction you get when you win
- - The PS4 version (I'm on the Pro) currently has a number of performance issues on certain Worlds and tracks
- - Loading times are a little long but it's to be expected as it's all generated whilst you wait
- - The game can be quite brutal and unforgiving as one nudge and you're thrown from your bike