This is an Early Access Review and as such opinions and scores are based solely on the state of the game at the time of review and subject to change as development progresses leading up to final release.
When you first open up a game in the Xbox Game Preview program, you can never be too sure what you’re about to get yourself into. Sometimes, you’ll get a barely functioning experience, where the potential is evident, but the current offering is severely lacking, and other time you’ll get a barebones title that functions well but is clearly an experiment to see how well particular mechanics are received. In the case of Descenders, the pendulum swings a little more towards the latter scenario, but with a lot of positives that make the experience feel closer to a full retail release.
Descenders is a relatively unique experience, both at its most simple description, and how the execution of the idea plays out. It’s a downhill BMX simulation, but with roguelike mechanics and plays as much as a puzzler as it does a racer. The rules are reasonably simple, in that you have to get yourself and your bike to the bottom of a slope without falling off, but how you get to this final gate is largely up to you. There’s a track that you can follow, with tricks to perform, but there’s also often wide expanses of hill that you can explore, with a higher chance of running into rocks and trees, which will end your run. The game also makes it explicit that there’s no focus on speed or time either, meaning that you can take as long as you’d like making it to the bottom.
The uniqueness of the gameplay comes out in two different ways. Firstly, each track is procedurally generating, which means that you’ll never ride the same track twice. There are four different environments to work your way through, from the highlands, to forests, canyons and mountain peaks. You’ll work your way across the map in each location, before attempting a boss level, consisting of a large jump, which upon completion allows you to enter the next area. However, if you lose all of your health, by falling off of your bike enough times, you’ll lose all progress and have to start in the first area again. By beating the boss level in each area three times, though, you’re allowed to permanently start a run in the next area, meaning that you’re constantly progressing, even if your run isn’t completed.
While you’re given the option to approach each course as passively as you’d like, you gain better rewards for being more aggressive, reaching higher speeds and attempting tricks to reach higher scores. These unlock a variety of rewards, including crew members, which offer gameplay modifiers for that particular run, which range from steeper courses to smoother curves to faster spins. You also unlock more bikes and equipment as you progress through the game, as well as being able to increase your division ranking, which is a more permanent upgrade. The progression aspect of Descenders feels like the least developed area of the game, as it’s currently a little lacking, but it does offer a fairly steady stream of rewards for just playing the game.
In its current state, Descenders is a little light on content, but despite that, I found myself returning time and time again to have just one more attempt at a successful run. What’s most promising about the experience is that the developers, RageSquid, have got the gameplay loop almost exactly right, where it’s punishing enough to give a challenge, but rewarding and responsive enough to feel as if just one more go will be enough to allow you to crack it. The skeleton of a potentially great game is here, and it now just needs a little more meat on the bones to make it truly excellent.