Remember outside? Lonely Mountains: Downhill is not only one of the best embodiments of the outdoors I’ve played during social isolation, it is also a terrific video game that nails the inherent crunchiness of biking in nature.
Lonely Mountains: Downhill was first released for major platforms in 2019, earning it a slot in Polygon’s best games of 2019 list. Since then, the mountain biking simulator has become a part of the Xbox Game Pass — meaning you can download it for free if you have a subscription — and, more recently, it was released on Nintendo Switch. The game has always been good, of course, if not a master class in tight controls. But having it as a portable experience only makes it better. Now I can play the game in bed when I’m once again failing to fall asleep at 3 a.m., which is a huge boon at this particular point in time.
It is, in some ways, a marvel of evocative sound design, but masterfully paired with the precision of the Switch’s HD rumble. Wheels on gravel. The crackle of breaking twigs. The close call of a tight corner swerve. The whine of your suspension when the bike hits the ground, hard. And then of course there are all the natural sounds of traversing a mountain: a creek rushing downstream; birds chirping cheerfully overhead; cicadas buzzing under the fat summer heat. Sometimes, I like to close my eyes and just soak it all in. I can almost forget that I haven’t been outdoors much in about three months.
But this isn’t merely an agrestal fantasy — because you’re going to die, and you’re going to die a lot. But unlike nearly every “masocore” game I’ve played, every challenge is self-inflicted. Mountains have a dizzying number of trails and backroads to choose from, and the game never tells you that you need to take any of these paths. But the fact that they’re there makes you curious, doesn’t it?
What would it take for you to land on that path without completely eating it? Once you’ve mastered the basic act of clearing a mountain, you can’t help but go back and discover how to shave time off your best run. Slowly but surely, you start becoming more daring — cutting a corner here, taking a jump there. Before you know it, you’re experimenting with major cliffs and tiny patches of road only braved by those with a death wish.
It’s kinda like that thing that happens when you’re playing an open-world game, see a mountain, and become determined to scale it even though it will take ages and it would absolutely be easier to just go around it — except the opposite, because you’re going downhill. But the game knows that we’re all stubborn bastards at heart. In fact, it’s banking on it.
Like Super Meat Boy, the game throws you back into the fray immediately after dying, so despite failing a dozen or two times in a row, you never really notice. Probably, you deserved that death. You could have taken the safer route, after all, but here you are, bashing your head against a wall over and over again, convinced that you can totally make this shortcut happen. Greedy, greedy.
It also helps that, while every mountain is an enormous level, each run is segmented into smaller bits. When you die, you don’t start completely over — you begin from the last flag. Each individual segment is timed, but the game won’t save it until you actually finish that portion of the trail, giving the whole thing a sort of speedrun-y feel. You don’t have to beat your personal best time, but the game does provide challenges to clear levels under certain death counts or time frames. So when the game tells me that something could be cleared in a minute and 30 seconds, and I notice that it took me a whopping four minutes to beat it, I have to find out how. I’ve found myself replaying the starting level over and over again thanks to these challenges, despite unlocking additional mountains.
This is the genius of Lonely Mountains: Downhill. The biggest threat is your own audacity, and the final boss is always your own hubris. How far will you push it? Somehow, it’s always a thrill to find out.
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