The indie cult hit from last year pedals onto Nintendo Switch, in what is one of the most immersive action games of the year.
As we’ve said before, the benefit of the Nintendo Switch being such a magnet for indie games is not just that it helps them to find a wider audience but that it gives us a second chance to review something if it originally passed us by. We don’t really remember Lonely Mountains: Downhill from when it was first released last autumn, and certainly wouldn’t have considered the name or premise very promising. But now that we’ve played it, it’s one of our favourite action games of the year.
We are dimly aware that downhill mountain biking is a real thing but while Lonely Mountains stops short of pure fantasy it’s definitely not an attempt to realistically portray the sport. Because if it was the real thing would’ve been made illegal long ago, due to the constant stream of deaths and serious injuries. Lonely Mountains is a video game first and foremost and it’s all the better for it.
The obvious comparison, when it comes to other games, is RedLynx’s Trials series and old school top-down racers such as Micro Machines. It works as more or less a straight mash-up between the two, ditching the silliness of Trials but still requiring you to navigate some very narrow obstacles and seemingly impossible jumps. Except instead of an essentially 2D, side-on view Lonely Mountains uses a fairly close-up isometric camera angle. And it works great.
Lonely Mountains is a refreshingly simple game at heart. The only controls are to accelerate, pedal faster, and brake (curiously you can’t reverse). That’s all there is to it, but there is an important decision to make in terms of whether steering is absolute, so that left is always left, or relative to your direction on screen. At first neither seems right but after a few minutes of getting used to the way the camera works, as it frequently rotates around you, you begin to appreciate just how precise and tactile the controls are.
You start at the top of one of one of several mountain trails and try to make your way down to the bottom, passing an average of around six checkpoints along the way – so it’s quite a long way down. Although the game is purely single-player, the Micro Machines comparison will have clued certain readers into how the camera works, as even when you’re cycling ‘into’ the screen you can often only see a few feet ahead of you.
This is not the problem it sounds like and the only real issue with the camera view is that it can make judging jumps and narrow paths, especially ad hoc bridges, harder than it should be. You learn to overcompensate but it’s a constant niggle. Part of the reason it’s not a bigger issue is that you’re constantly restarting and learning the course anyway. In fact, the first challenge on any new trail is entirely freeform, giving you the chance to learn the route and discover any shortcuts.
You’ll never find them all first-time round, but the way the shortcuts work is great, from simply cutting between some trees to insanely dangerous jumps across stony canyons. Technically, the game never tells you which way to go anyway, but barrelling down the side of a mountain you’ll often pass what is clearly the end of a shortcut and instantly want to go back and find out how to use it.
Although jumps can be an irritation the biggest issue with Lonely Mountains is the inconsistency of what happens when you collide with objects. Sometimes you just need to brush up against a tree to force a restart, while other times you survive clearly lethal drops and carry on as if nothing happened. The worst though are the dreaded white rocks that litter most courses and cause instant death if you so much as graze them… except when they don’t.
The inconsistent collisions are less of a problem than they might have been as you end up assuming everything will kill you and when it doesn’t it feels like a lucky respite. But it’s still an unfortunate flaw in a game that is otherwise so well constructed.
Immersion has long been an obsession of video games – the idea that playing them can consume your senses and imagination so entirely that you completely forget you’re looking at a screen and holding a controller – and Lonely Mountains regularly achieves that nirvanic sensation thanks to both the superb controls and the surprisingly beautiful visuals and sound effects.
The screech of brakes as you whip the bike around in an arc of pixelated gravel creates a Proustian bridge straight back to childhood memories of riding a bike on lazy summer days (and without the need for masks or social distancing). And while the purposefully simple polygons that make up the game’s landscape may seem unimpressive in screenshots the use of depth of field and wonderfully realistic sound effects, of chirping birds and chiming cowbells, is hugely evocative.
Rather than it being an annoyance that you can’t see far ahead of you, the way the camera allows trees to briefly obscure your vision gives the impression of branches having to be brushed out of the way, as you make your progress downhill. It’s an impressive achievement and, together with Knights And Bikes, a wonderful tribute to the glory of the simple pushbike.
Lonely Mountains is not the sort of game to turn heads in terms of either its concept or visuals, but its precise controls and beguiling atmosphere are the virtual breath of fresh air which the current lockdown is denying us all. It does, perhaps, all get a bit too unforgiving by the end but there’s plenty of content and it provides some of the most enjoyably uncomplicated action of recent months.
Lonely Mountains: Downhill Nintendo Switch review summary
In Short: One of the best video games to ever be based around cycling, with the stylised visuals and pitch perfect controls creating an impressively immersive experience.
Pros: The controls are pleasingly precise and the endless array of shortcuts a pleasure to search for and use. Highly immersive atmosphere, with great use of sound effects and camera angles.
Cons: There’s a frustrating inconsistency in whether collisions bring an end to your run or not. Camera angle can make jumps and narrow paths unnecessarily difficult.
Formats: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC
Developer: Megagon Industries
Release Date: 7th May 2020
Age Rating: 3
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