Speedy thing goes in, speedy thing goes splat.
I can’t ride a bike. I never learned and, at this stage of my life, learning to ride one wouldn’t add much to my life experience. This has become a point of great contention among my friend group, one of whom felt strongly enough that their father offered to sponsor me to learn. But now, a few hours into Lonely Mountains: Downhill, I feel a sense of vindication for that disinterest in learning to ride one, because I am now more convinced than ever that bikes are terrifying death machines with only one goal, to take the blood that’s inside your body and transition it to the outside with great ferocity and speed.
Lonely Mountains: Downhill is a mountain biking game where your objective is to take a mad man with a bike and a death wish from the top of a mountain to the bottom, without fulfilling that wish for the sweet release of oblivion. There are four mountains and four trails on each mountain, each adding more rocks, steep slopes and jumps to make that job progressively harder as you progress through the game. The controls are beautifully simplistic, giving you only steering, acceleration, brakes and sprint, which tips the scale on the game to being incredibly skill-based and satisfying to play. When you get the exact sequence of controls right to navigate a tricky bit of a trail, it almost feels like solving a puzzle and weirdly reminds me of the feeling of completing a test chamber in Portal, only without a psychotic AI telling you that you “fly through the air like an eagle…piloting a blimp”, one of my favourite lines in gaming.
That satisfying gameplay is also due to the feeling of the movement in the game. The acceleration as you go down a hill or use the sprint button and you start to lose control feels real. The resistivity of the longer grass holding you back when you stray from the path feels real. The twitchy feeling of braking at great speed and suppressing or leaning into a skid feels real. So much attention to detail has been put into how the game feels and it really shows. The developers nailed a lot of the components of Lonely Mountains: Downhill, but the feeling of motion is the headline that I’d use to recommend the game.
You’re given each trail that you tackle in the game in a free roam format to start with, where you have no time limit or challenges to meet, like the first year at university. You’ll die a lot during this first run because mountain biking is dangerous and mountain bikers are lunatics. But that’s the point of being given a free roam version of the map to start with, so you can familiarise yourself with its intricacies and death traps. There are 5-10 checkpoints per trail so you’ll just pop back to that point every time you die so you can attempt the tricky bit again.
Once you’ve familiarised yourself with the trail it’s time to do it for real. You’re given a selection of challenges such as completing it in a certain time or with fewer than so many crashes. Each of those challenges unlocks something, such as new bikes or skins (insert joke about the cyclist needing new skin because the crashes made all of his come off) or, most importantly, new trails and mountains, meaning you’ll need to complete at least one challenge to progress through the game. These challenges are pretty perfect and balance being difficult without being impossible.
I really like two things the game does to make the challenges a little more forgiving. Firstly, you don’t need to complete all of them in a single run, so you can go for a slow, cautious run to complete the few crashes challenge and then go for a fast, caution-to-the-wind run to beat the trail within the time limit. Secondly, the checkpoint system is tied to the timing when you’re doing a timed run, so if (when) you crash, the time taken between the last checkpoint and that crash is taken from your total, i.e. it only includes the time you took to get between one checkpoint and the next without crashing. This makes the challenges feel doable and means you’re not kept from playing the latter half of the game when the new mountains and trails are locked behind completing them.
Lonely Mountains: Downhill also manages to pack this satisfying gameplay and compelling challenge system into a nicely presented art style. The vibrant colours and polygonal models fit the game perfectly and, despite that style being characteristic of older PS1 and Xbox games, it actually makes the game look fresh and distinct, as well as quite beautiful, with the lovingly rendered gushing streams and autumnal leaves. The word ‘oversaturation’ clearly wasn’t in the vocabulary of whoever chose the colour pallet, leading to the gorgeous presentation of the game we ended up with.
In my mind, Lonely Mountains: Downhill is the perfect Switch game and, a pretty great game regardless of platform. It feels amazing, looks fantastic and is exactly the right level of challenging. The way that you can pick it up for five minutes, have a run through a trail and have a fun time makes it ideally suited to what I think the switch does best, that pick-up-and-play genre of games you can play on a train or while waiting for a bus. Even then, you can sit down with it for a few hours to make some progress through a mountain, tackle a difficult challenge or destroy your high score. Whatever type of gamer you are, Lonely Mountains: Downhill has something for you to sink your teeth into and it’s a strong recommendation from me.