Lonely Mountains: Downhill — Snap Judgement #4
An elegant mountain biking game with a perspective problem.
Time played: Across two sessions that were months apart, I’ve probably played for a total of two hours. I’ve made it all the way down a trail maybe six or seven times.
Don’t be fooled by the boxy art style, the tilt-shift camera, and the gentle mountain breeze sound design, Lonely Mountains: Downhill is a deceptively difficult little downhill cycling game. It’s so difficult, in fact, that I got to a controller-throwing level of frustration after just a few minutes on my second encounter with the game. I know that spending more time mastering its controls might make for a satisfying experience, but the controls are so peculiar that I don’t know if they’re worth mastering.
Despite my complaints, I will admit that the whole game is beautifully simple and elegant. You play a little person on a bike, and your objective is to cycle to the bottom of a mountain. The hills are steep, so instead of just pedaling down a path, you’re sort of carving your way down a dirt trail. There’s lots of flinging yourself forward then turning sharply, almost bringing yourself to a complete stop. It kind of reminds me of what I imagine skiing or snowboarding at a high speed would be like. And that dynamic is really interesting! But once you grasp the friction physics on your first run, you’re only halfway down the mountain.
The rest of that first journey gets tricky. You encounter areas where the trail thins, rocks and trees that block your path, and giant canyons that require speed to jump over. Even the first course is a mild gauntlet of challenges. But with a little trial and error you’ll be able to get through it. And even if you don’t make it through, the penalty isn’t too bad. After crashing — which you’ll do a lot — you instantly reset at a checkpoint with the press of a button. And these checkpoints are set at a distance that seems fair to the player. You’ll usually only have to re-do thirty to sixty seconds of travel.
But that’s all the good news. The bad news is that there are a few problematic gameplay element that compound on each other, culminating in that controller-throwing frustration. The issues begin with the camera, which always hovers above you, staying parallel with the mountain. It’s hard to describe without a picture, so here:
That perspective looks cool, but the problem is that the view is relative to the trail, not the person you’re controlling, so the way you move your character is constantly changing. Everything’s fine if you’re moving away from the camera: your left is your left, and your right is your right. But when you’re moving toward the camera, your left becomes your right and your right becomes your left.
The game tries to compensate for this with a “steering mode” setting. It has two options: “right/left,” which controls the rider “from their perspective” (meaning left is always left and right is always right, regardless of how the cyclist is pointed), and “screenbased,” which is described as “move the stick in the direction you want to go.” Neither felt totally perfect to me, but I did much better with screenbased. The problem is that “left/right” offers the really fine control you need to carve down the side of a hill or navigate between narrow passages, but I also need the automatic direction switching that “screenbased” provides.
In the end, there’s no way to win. I can’t carve hard or navigate narrow areas with “screenbased” and I can’t steer intuitively with “right/left.” With either control scheme, I’ll reach a point on the trail where the weakness of the setting will become clear, and I’ll suddenly start crashing over and over and over again without really knowing why. I will feel like I provided the input I needed to, but I’ll crash anyway.
And that’s what makes me want to throw my controller.
It’s a pity, because I expected this game to be relaxing. The soundscape is a gentle mix of birds chirping and sliding dirt. The environment is full of lush greenery. The menus are simple and responsive. But when you mix those elements with gameplay that’s extremely challenging because of the way the camera forces you to control your character, the experience goes from a pleasant zip down a mountainside to an aggravating plummet through the dirt. I’m sure many thrill seekers will enjoy spending hours mastering those controls and threading their way through the obstacles, but I’m not one of them.