The rogue-likes and rogue-lites are finally dying down.
You’d think after something like NeuroVoider, or Dead Cells, that’d be it, but no, you still get the occasional curveball of top-down tedium or side-scrolling smattering with miscreant merchants. Today however? I think we’ve found another nice peak, and ironically, it’s called Descenders.
This is the sophomore title from Dutch studio RageSquid, who released Descenders onto various early access fronts back in 2018. RageSquid first made their name known with Action Henk, a weird Trials-esque game with more of an emphasis on platforming, and now they’ve released todays BMXing beast with the help of No More Robots, publishers of recent kitsch darling Hypnospace Outlaw. More than a sign of quality.
There’s no plot to speak of, unless you want to bring up the usual Rogue-like schtick… In fact, lets do that. You’re the BMX Bandit, former partner of Angel Summoner, who has been imprisoned on top of the Scottish Highlands after the evil scoot master Jeremy Corbyn thinks you’re too cool to be around people. After popping a wheelie to kick some dirt into the guards face, you escape your cell and begin your escape.
In all seriousness, RageSquid have genuinely created a small bite-size rogue-lite in the form of a simple extreme sport, and that’s downhill off-road BMX. From your beginning in the Highlands, to your cataclysmic crashing through the Canyon, to the penultimate perilous precision prerequisites in the Peaks, it’s all fast all the time, all with the likes of procedural generation and temporary upgrades.
Gameplay is a simple mix between the likes of Trials, and the ollie-ing mechanics of Skate 3. You use the Right and Left triggers to accelerate and brake respectively, with the right stick controlling your “pumping” along with your bunny hopping. This all controls how you’d expect in a 3D format: Like a bloody dream, with the weight and terrifying uncontrollable feel of the bike being felt in full force as you barrel down certain hills and areas with nothing on your mind but the sweet release of death.
If you’re feeling exceptionally suicidal, you can always add a bit of flavor to your air-time by pulling off endless flips and spins, in the hopes of getting a high score. It’s not as insanely implemented here as it was in Skate 3, as the tricks are hidden and never expanded upon by the game, which is a shame if you ask me.
If you hold the left bumper and point the right stick in a direction, then you’ll see something more in-line with most skating games, but the game never properly rewards you for using this, outside of one bonus level. Realistically, Descenders has more in common with the N64 classic 1080 Snowboarding more than other obvious examples, with the same focus on dangerous downhill delves, but Descenders finds beauty in simplicity.
Really, it’s the innocence of it all that makes the game such a dead-set winner. It’s what makes the likes of titles like Cooking Mama or Papers, Please so great; it’s tapping into a genre which hasn’t seen a good game– Or a game made about it, period– And infusing it with the likes of simple, addicting game design, or something relevant at the moment. In this case, it’d be a rogue-lite, whose mechanics are still drenched in said simplicity.
Progression is similar to a title like Iron Crypticle or RICO, the idea of branching paths dotted with small levels that lead to your main objective. In Descenders case, it works by rating three factors of each track: The steepness, the curvy nature of the track, and how many stunt-based objects will appear. It’s a good prediction feature to have as time goes on, but what will catch you is the nature of how a curve or steep part of the map will present itself.
Ho-yes, just because the game is easy to understand, doesn’t mean it can’t throw a curve-ball now and then. The way Descenders preys on players is smart– Devilishly smart, at times. It knows you understand how the health works: If you bail, you lose a point of health, but oh? What’s this? If I complete bonus objectives on each separate level, like “Land 2 Frontflips”, or “Finish without braking”, I can get more health? Well, I suppose I have to play it a bit more loosely, and– BAM! They’ve caught you in the trap, and suddenly you have to dodge 4 spiky rocks in order to make sure you survive ’til you reach the Canyons.
Littered throughout the maps are ways to prove your mettle and strength against the mountains. Some descents may offer double the XP, but also make you lose double the health if you bail. Others may force you to use the First-Person camera in order to complete a race, in what now be officially classed as “The Worst Game To Potentially Ever Have A VR Aspect Attached To It”.
Throughout all of this, you still get a sense of exhilaration and speed, along with a sense of intelligent accomplishment for overcoming Descenders many, many deadly ramps. It’s all about knowing your trajectory, knowing what could classify as a big drop or not, knowing where to bunny hop, and knowing when to go for that bonus objective and free health. It’s great gameplay, almost impeccable, but with that being said, the “Boss jumps” feel a bit arbitrary and dull.
It’s always this massive ramp over a specific object, and it never changes. It wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t feel like the physics always move the goalposts as to what constitutes as a straight-up bail from a big drop or not. Trying to remain consistent on the boss jumps is stupidly difficult, in a way that feels like it shouldn’t be– Especially when it comes to the final boss jump, but I digress.
What might be a great idea to implement in the future, is the use of multiple boss jumps that utilize various factors of the players skills, like the mini-boss jumps already do. With the mini-bosses, not only are you pulling off sick tricks, but you’re also having your balance tested, or your precision, or your talent at optimizing speed, and the bosses could do a lot more with that aspect. Does it sound more challenging? Of course it does, but when some of the mini-boss jumps push you harder than the actual bosses, it’s quite interesting to imagine just how far something like a tightrope could be pushed as a final obstacle.
When Descenders is good, it’s really good, but one thing it could definitely improve on is the visual design of it all. It’s exceptionally generic with how it presents itself with most of the mountains and levels, and it’s not until you’ve pumped about 15 or 20 hours into the game before you truly start to see visual changes that look interesting. Career-plus mode unlocks after you’ve attained 250’000 “Rep”, which is basically the XP of the game, and the four areas used here do look good. Not eye-poppingly beautiful, but interesting.
Tell you what though, there is one thing they missed out on, and that was the opportunity to use the Dutch countryside more than what they did. You only see it once, and that’s in the credits sequence after completing the Peaks boss jump, and it is such a beautiful sight to see more than three colors be used at once. All with the backdrop of some rather lavish windmills. It’s like the ending of The MISSING, but if J.J. Macfield was a BMXing superstar.
Descenders can also chug down into single-digit frames sometimes. Go too fast, and the game will fail to pop-in most of the textures and the world itself, to the point where you might escape the realms of Descenders, and enter, say, Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland. When you enter a game with other people playing as well, it starts to cough even harder, possibly due to multiplayer quite literally being added with release.
Despite how drab Descenders can look at times– and how atrocious the performance can be– It still doesn’t stop it from being so weirdly addictive. Christ, it’s only been out for four days (At time of writing), and I already have 20 hours clocked on it. Maybe it’s the genuine thrill you get from the FOV going mental as your rider breaks 100 KM/H speeds. Maybe it’s the way that, like Skate 3, it manages to be teetering on the edge between the possible and impossible. Maybe it’s because I’m good at the game– That’ll probably be the main reason, but the others listed are also applicable.
In the end, Descenders is an innocent adventure into how something small and simple can turn into a massive achievement. It may not be the prettiest dame for sale, but it’s what’s under the hood that makes it such a marvel to play, with its tight controls, and even tighter grip on the player. It’s a gateway title into more complex and brilliant rogue-like and rogue-lites, and it’ll be a definite Indie GOTY contender, even months down the line.
This Review of Descenders was based on the Xbox One version of the game.
Despite an aesthetic and presentation that might turn the more deterred players away, Descenders truly is a refreshing take on a genre that needed it, regardless of whether being a rogue-like is the center of its design.
Owner of the largest collection of indie games in the Western Hemisphere, and TimeSplitters’ biggest fanboy.