The Early Access program on Xbox is a great addition to the eco-system, giving both players a better idea of how a game takes shape over time, and devs a great way to interact with players to see what is and isn’t working. My first exposure, like a fair few players, was PUBG, which had a long gestation on PC before arriving on console. Descenders then could be considered my first true early access game, launching just a couple of months behind Steam and clearly still very early on in development.
What’s here is pretty sound to be fair and bodes well for future updates and the eventual full release. Initial impressions are a bit underwhelming, as the long, long load time had me reaching for the power button assuming the game had crashed. Once loaded though, you are placed in a small open environment to cycle around and get the feel of the controls. Triggers for acceleration and braking work well, giving you a good amount of control over your rider, though I do find the steering to be a tad twitchy, hopefully something that can be dialed down going forward.
The other main control concerns tricks, mapped to the right stick. I’ve never been a big fan of using this for tricks in games such as Skate or the like and while Descenders doesn’t sway me on this front, it is implemented fairly well. Pull back on the stick to ready a bunny hop, then flick up to complete. In the air different angles will perform tricks or tweaks, though in my experience anything more than a basic flip or spin resulted in face-planting the floor. More to do with my skill-set to be fair but the collision detection sometimes will have you wipe out even though it looked like you landed OK.
Again, that’s what early access is for and hopefully this can be tweaked going forward to be a bit more forgiving. Aside from the free roam opening, right now there is one option for a career of sorts. You are presented with a map each time you complete a race, with a multiple choice of your next challenge, the aim being to reach the Boss Jump and complete it to get to the next set of levels. I found this set up to be a great touch, enabling you to progress in your own way, whether you pretty straight downhill races or more stunt focused tracks.
You are also afforded a chance to gain more XP and perks, though at the risk of losing more lives. Each map layout and level is randomly generated each session, as well as bonus objectives to gather lives back. With the basic building blocks in place, levels don’t really have to much variety to them in terms of visuals, though the layouts will vary wildly. Jumps will be scattered along the track, with the aim to gain points to unlock a perk, from making track layouts easier to increasing you jump height, but you are free to just barrel down the hill to the finish line in any direction you want.
The track here is merely a suggestion and seeing as each time you bail you lose one of your few lives, if you want to see further tracks it’s all too easy just to head downhill to the goal. Some harder layouts put literal rocks in the way to try to prevent this, but it would be nice to see some sort of reward system in place for player who do stick to the track, even if lining up the jumps and stunt can be incredibly frustrating at times. While I appreciate the variety a procedural approach can provide, there are currently no proper, authored tracks, which could really serve the career mode well.
It’s all too easy to have a great run scuppered by a ridiculously placed jump or obstacle. Once your lives are done, it’s back to beginning of the mode, only by beating the boss jump 3 times can you skip to the next level from the off. Tightened controls, added elements to the stage generation and perhaps optional authored tracks and challenges and the game could have all the tools to become a good Twitch game, with interactive elements already in place. Viewers are currently able to modify weather, track difficulty or even help with extra lives and there’s scope for all kinds of mad modifiers going forward. Oh, and thank goodness for Spotify as the track selection is terrible.
The game does well at providing that “rush” as you speed downhill, bolstered by decent (if repetitive) visuals and a solid design layout. On the flip side, the soundtrack is awful, the controls can be a tad twitchy and there’s no real incentive to follow the track, which is a shame. I’ll be checking in periodically to see how the game progresses. Descenders is a competent early access title, and there is definitely potential for the future.
This game was tested and previewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.