Descenders is all about going downhill on a bike as quickly as possible while pulling off cool stunts and not dying. It’s great stuff, and marked out Dutch developer RageSquid thanks to its polish, feel, and general unputdownable nature. Published by No More Robots, it’s a delicious little indie game that can suck hours out of the day.
But, that was on consoles. Y’know, those big beefy things that can do the ray tracing. So, Noodlecake Studios, who worked on Alto’s Adventure, are onboard to bring the title to some tiny little screens. And I’m pleased to report it did a damn good job.
Visually, everything is surprisingly crisp, colours pop, and the draw distance isn’t too bad. There’s still a bit of pop-in, but when you’re moving that quickly of course there’s gonna be (and it also doesn’t really hinder the experience). It looks lovely – as the sun sets and shadows grow long, there’s a great sense of atmosphere, given the concessions made to get it onto smaller hardware.
Luckily, the game’s addictive rogue-like loop is still there in its fullest form. In the standard mode, you explore different nodes on a map, and the further you get, the more reputation you can earn. Earning reputation gets you customisable items and such to deck out your rider however you fancy.
The trick with all of this is that the courses are procedurally generated, meaning that any course can have a mix of hills, stunts, speed, and overall difficulty. As you move across these nodes, you have to adapt to different tracks, which change constantly, and sometimes even have different challenges attached.
One track might have no path, tasking you with weaving between trees and rocks to your destination. Another may put you in a first-person perspective, just the handlebars and the rider’s shadow visible before the dirt track. Then there are others that ramp up the danger to the max, doubling your health loss when you fall, but also doubling your reputation accumulation.
This playfulness, twisting the base of the game just because it seems like it would be fun, is really quite charming, too. The game reminds me of Art of Rally – an excellent procedurally-generated toyetic rally game – except rather than going all in on vibes and flow, Descenders reigns that in for a focus on inventiveness and challenge. But how far can that feeling go on a touchscreen?
Yep, there’s one big loudly shouted question in everyone’s minds: how are the controls? Sure, there are lots of fun peripherals out there but not everyone has them. When I reviewed Medieval II: Total War I thought the controls were mightily impressive but still a massive downgrade to the proper experience, and my final question was, can you accept that concession?
Now, I don’t like retreading old ground and not finding new angles to look at stuff from – that’s just lazy – but there’s the exact same question coming up with the Descenders mobile port. The controls are rock solid, meaning you can feel pretty confident getting down most slopes and pulling off a few tricks.
But controlling the direction of your rider with the touch screen is never going to be as accurate as a gamepad. So, I loaded Descenders up on my iPad, connected my Xbox controller, and gave that a go. And, well, it feels so much nicer, like playing on a bigger Switch.
As soon as I switched to using a gamepad, I had the confidence to tweak and fakie to my heart’s content, pulling off stunts I couldn’t dream of on a touchscreen. There’s also great rumble support and full integration that took no setup from my side. (I’m also not playing on a fancy M1 iPad, just a gen-9 model with the A13 chip, and it runs smoothly throughout).
Once in the flow, I started climbing up the ranks and reliving what magic Descenders has. I played for hours, collecting items and completing challenges in half the time it would have taken me on my iPhone. This is where the game turns into its inspirations, feeling as easy to get obsessed with as SSX Tricky or the like. But I could not find this feeling on the touchscreen alone.
So, is this a criticism or not? Well, not really. I think the game is slightly too complex to make the most of on a touch screen, but Noodlecake Studios has done a great job – I can’t imagine a better way of doing it. It’s just an unideal way of controlling a game where the depth of tricks is part of the excitement.
And because the core experience can be deepened just by connecting up a console controller, I think it’s a win. The more games that get these excellent ports, the more your big phone or tablet can turn into a true portable gaming device, rather than just a mobile gaming device.
So, Descenders is a success on mobile, and the only thing holding it back is the hardware’s own limitations, limitations that have been here forever and aren’t going away any time soon. The bonus is gamepad grips for phones and easy console controller setup on tablets can turn it into the deep and engaging experience it is on the beefier machines. It’s a success, and that’s the main thing.