Afternoon Quickie: Lonely Mountains: Downhill

Update 6/8/20: The most recent version of the game (1.0.5p2) was released two days ago, and it’s chock full of performance fixes. I’m stoked to announce that Night Mode is now completely playable in both docked and handheld mode, with the glitchy lighting effects and poor framerate issues fixed. The menus have also had a bit of rework regarding the effects, with the framerate also improved across the board, specifically when selecting the mountain. It all feels much smoother and is even more fun now than before. Thunderful Games has done a great job bringing the Switch version of the game up to speed with the other console releases. As of this version, Lonely Mountains: Downhill is officially a 5-star recommendation. Pick it up asap!

I don’t typically buy a lot of indie eShop games. But damn, do I love me some downhill mountain biking!

That being said, I’m not all that great at it. I tried a few races, broke my foot in the first, and almost killed myself plenty of times on the second (but I did finish the race!) These days I keep of the double black diamonds and stick to the slower rocky stuff. But sometimes, not being great at something makes the appeal of playing it in video game form even more appealing than if you were actually good at it.

I mean, think of all the actual guitar players that tried Guitar Hero and sucked at it. Probably didn’t frustrate them too much if they weren’t good at it, because hey, they could already “do the real thing,” right?

But the beauty of downhilling is in its simplicity – the whole point is to get to the bottom. Preferably in one piece, and as fast as possible. Bonus points if you and the bike are in one piece. You keep practicing the trails, improve your speed, find the best lines, identify shortcuts, enjoy a few adrenaline rushes from near-misses, say “FUCKIN’ SIIICK!” to your buddies a few times, rinse and repeat for a few hours or until your hands don’t work anymore, and it ends with a peaceful gondola ride back up to the top. Lonely Mountains: Downhill is a perfect encapsulation of all of this (well, minus the ski-lift rides), wrapped in a minimalist indie aesthetic.

It’s as “get in and go” as it can be – from the main menu you don’t have many options but to start the game, pick a mountain, choose and customize your bike, pick a challenge, and begin your descent.

Lonely Mountains: Downhill is challenge-oriented in its gameplay, which allows the player to learn the controls and get comfy at his or her own pace. They could have treated this as a sort of “sandbox” type of game, where the only focus was on getting to the bottom as fast as possible. However, just like with real downhilling, you don’t just bomb the mountain the first time you ride – you take it nice and slow, you identify obstacles, find good lines, and practice your descents slowly and safely until you get more comfortable. It’s only until race day where you push the absolutely limits, lest you separate your limbs from the rest of your body.

Oh yeah, that’s one of my favorite parts of Lonely Mountains: crashing. Crashing hard, and crashing often. And without the $1800 medical bill to surgically reconstruct your foot!

The first goal in each mountain, as well as each trail on that mountain, is to get to the bottom with however many crashes are necessary. Only once the player has had time to build a “mental map” of the level are they challenged to increase their pace. Small challenges like limiting the number of crashes or shaving seconds off their run times are gradually rolled out to the player as they become more confident, and for crushing those goals they are rewarded with gear points to buy better (or just different types of) bikes, unlocking new trails on the current mountain, and of course, unlocking new mountains.

One really cool part of downhilling that they nailed is the discovery of trails. Although this would technically be more of a “freeriding” type of thing (that is, riding places out in the wild rather than a lift-assisted park with predefined trails), finding the cleaning and shortest routes is the biggest part of the fun. Each mountain trail in Lonely Mountains has literally dozens of secret routes that can be discovered by simply taking your time and veering of course, so to speak. There are massive gaps to send (that’s mountain bike-speak for hitting something with little regard to consequence, as in, “just fuckin’ send it!”), shortcuts to take, and massively steep descents to hit, resulting in an excellent amount of replayability. Seriously – any one mountain can be descended in probably over a thousand different combinations.

You’ll be having a pleasant ride, until you accidentally launch straight off a mountain, yet you will somehow manage to save it – viola! You’ve just discovered a new route. This happens constantly, and once you realize there’s a shortcut, you start to rethink your whole route. Next thing you know, you just shaved a few seconds off the run. It’s a very rewarding cycle.

Not only that, but once you unlock Night Riding, all of the mountains and trails that you can ride, as well as their associated challenges, can be played in total darkness! Well, your bike has a light, but it’s super sketchy feeling, descending into the dark abyss. You’ll be much more careful and trust me, you’ll need to attack each run with a shifted focus and precision and far less risk taking.

I completely forgot to take a screenshot during the night riding segment, because I was terrified of crashing!

Let’s talk the most important thing of any game based around a vehicle: the physics. The developers seem to have nailed all the fun parts of physics, dialing in juuust the perfect amount of realism. Drifting around corners is incredibly satisfying, taking shortcuts is rewarding, and the different feel of each bike is obvious and significant.

The physics in this game are unlike anything I’ve seen – full-price dirt bike racing games (I have yet to play any mountain biking or downhilling games) that have come out in recent years don’t hold a candle to the realism/arcade blend of Lonely Mountains: Downhill.

That being said, there are some rough edges to Lonely Mountains: Downhill. The terrific physics I mentioned apply to the bike and gravity, but not necessarily to the obstacles you come across. For the most part, they are predictable. But coming to a standstill on your bike can yield all sorts of weird effects.

If you go the wrong way, it’s basically impossible to turn around. The bike does this strange “floaty” thing where it just hovers in place, and eventually you just… crash. There’s also the rocks that somehow don’t trip you up, and sometimes much smaller rocks that do, which can be very frustrating. Hey, part of downhilling is rolling over rocks – it really doesn’t need to be an instant-over-the-balls situation when you hit some rocks. A lot of rocks, depending on the angle you hit them, will send you straight into the air, which is cool, but it’s never totally obvious whether you’re going to get some nice air time and perhaps jump over some obstacles, or fall flat on your face.

I also haven’t spoken about the main antagonist in Lonely Mountains: Downhill: the camera. If Lakitu from the Mario Bros. series was the camera man, I’d assume he’s been taking mixing beer and pain meds because this dude is all over the place. Half the time, the camera is so zoomed in to the rider that you lose all ability to react within a reasonable amount of time. Unfortunately that turns into “Ha Ha, you didn’t see the obstacle!” which can get very frustrating.

The Dreaded Camera

The camera angles in Lonely Mountains can be broken down into three distinct views:

  • in front of the rider, where the bike is headed towards the camera
  • facing the side of the rider, creating somewhat of a “2d platformer” of mountain biking, except you still have the depth aspect and thus, need to steer
  • positioned behind-the-rider or the “over the shoulder” angle.

The way I personally see Lonely Mountains is through perhaps a different lens from many, but you don’t simply barrel down a hill and try not to die – you need to have the flexibility to try new things that aren’t 100% dependent upon your reflexes. The first camera angle I mentioned and spoke briefly of can remove any element of strategy and replace it with a huge dependency on reflex time.

I have no idea what I’m launching into!

I mean, think about it for a second – when you’re riding a bicycle, you will naturally control your speed to match the time at which you are comfortable reacting. Right? In the same way you drive a vehicle at a speed that is comfortable, your brain can automatically figure out when you’re in danger, and give you that sick stomach feeling. I call that, “the fear”.

The problem is that you don’t get to experience “the fear” when the camera is pointed straight at the rider, because you have to ride the brakes the whole time in order to keep some semblance of control. Imagine if you looked out the windshield of your car, and saw the front of your car. Everyone would be driving 4 miles per hour, or roughly, walking speed.

The side angle is very tough to play with, because you can’t get a good feel for the depth. I sent a lot of huge jumps hoping to take a shortcut, only to miss the mountain completely and launch myself off a cliff. This is especially noticeable on the later trails that get progressively more difficult, and because of this, I still think the best mountain is the first one.

I have the most fun playing Lonely Mountains when the camera got out of the way, and gave me either a) a front-facing camera angle, but zoomed out, or my personal favorite, the over-the-shoulder moments. This felt like downhilling; it’s basically positioned where my GoPro camera would be sitting. When the camera angle is positioned in such a way that focuses on strategy and finding shortcuts and shaving precious seconds off of your descent time, Lonely Mountains shines the brightest.

Night Mode, Bad Mode

Update – read above! Night Mode has been fixed and the overall game performance has been greatly improved since version 1.0.5 patch 2.

It’s tough to dock points for this, because it’s clearly only an issue on the Nintendo Switch, but riding at night is a neat little add-in feature that does not work on this console. You unlock night mode in each mountain as you play through the game, granting you access to an entire other side of the game that you can play at night time, with a light on the front of your bike. This is a great idea, and one that I’m sure is a lot of fun on every other console.

The problem is that the light itself casts tons of shadows on the gorgeous environments, in fact it’s too gorgeous because the Switch simply can’t keep the framerate up to speed. I’m no framerate whore but this game demands a minimum of 30fps purely for reaction time. I have no way of knowing exactly what I’m looking at, but I’d estimate it’s around 20 at best, meaning you are careening down a mountain with almost no vision, and you’re losing at least a third of the frames to react. It’s completely impossible to play and it’s a shame. It can be fixed with a patch, and hopefully it does at some point (after-all, half the game is night mode and I personally love night riding), but this is just a darn shame, and one I hate to even have to bring up.

Luckily, the framerate is pretty good the vast majority of the time in day riding, and so until the developers can (hopefully) patch out the performance issues for night mode, this is still a very enjoyable title that will keep you busy for hours. I still thought it was worth mentioning.

So, ultimately, do I recommend you purchase Lonely Mountains: Downhill? Easy – absolutely. It’s a surefire win, whether or not you’re into mountain biking or downhilling is irrelevant. It’s easy to learn, it’ll crack you up with moments of triumph as well as those all-too-common moments of complete and utter failure. While you may get frustrated at times, particularly as the difficulty increases, it’s one of those “one more try” type of games that have a way of fast-forwarding time.

The minor gripes I have with the game are, of course, very fixable, and some patch releases have come out since launch (although without a press release or at least a change log somewhere, I have no idea what was actually updated). The developers did a terrific job capturing many aspects of the sport and you can tell it was built from a place of love.

If you fancy a more realistic downhilling game, I’d also like to mention that Descenders is due out on the Switch in a few short weeks, and I’ll also be covering that when I receive it. Ride on, and keep the rubber side down!

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