Lonely Mountains: Downhill – Bringing the Outside Inside

For a lot of us, the more “extreme” sports are probably best left in the realm of fantasy, because we’d probably kill ourselves within about five seconds of starting.

I, for example, know that while I am perfectly capable of riding a bike, I would almost certainly be never heard from ever again were you to put me at the summit of a mountain atop a suitable bicycle and encourage me to enjoy a scenic but perilous trail down to the bottom. Which is a shame, because I rather enjoy the peacefulness of being out in nature — the breeze brushing past you, the clear air and the relaxing, soothing sounds of being far from “civilisation”.

Lucky, then, that we have games like Lonely Mountains: Downhill, which allow you to enjoy at least some of that experience from the comfort of your sofa — and without any risk of injuries ranging from grazed knees to catastrophic eruption of ribcage from torso. Let’s take a closer look.

Lonely Mountains: Downhill is a game developed by small German studio Megagon Industries, and published by Swedish outfit Thunderful Publishing. The original project was funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign as well as a contribution from German media body Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, and released to the public on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Windows PC in 2019. This was followed by a Nintendo Switch version in early May of 2020.

Megagon’s stated intention with Lonely Mountains: Downhill is to create a “different type of sports game”, set in “a world without sponsor signs, barrier tapes or spectators”. In other words, this isn’t a game about the glamour and recognition of international organised sport; it is, instead, a game about overcoming personal challenges — and the numerous obstacles Nature happens to have put in your path. But Nature was here first, so there’s no negotiating with her; you’re just going to have to deal with what she left behind for you to discover.

In its most basic form, Lonely Mountains: Downhill is a game simply about enjoying the ride. Unfolding from a dynamic high-up camera, you control your low-poly mountain biker with straightforward, easily understandable controls and simply attempt to make your way from the top of a mountain trail to the campsite at the bottom. It doesn’t matter how quickly you do it; it doesn’t matter if you crash along the way. Just enjoy the ride.

And it doesn’t take long to start feeling that enjoyment. The default control scheme, whereby you push the analogue stick in the direction you would like to end up facing, feels wonderfully smooth and allows for some realistic sliding around corners through quick changes of direction when you’re feeling a bit rambunctious. Those who grew up playing Action Biker on 8-bit microcomputers can also opt for a more traditional “push left to turn left” system if they prefer.

As you proceed down the mountain, holding the right trigger to pedal or the left trigger to apply the brakes, you’ll encounter some lovely scenery, all presented in subtly textured low-poly visuals. The clear shapes of the scenery elements combined with the realistic textures and the exaggerated “tilt-shift” soft-focus depth of field effect on the camera gives the whole game something of a “papercraft” look about it; it’s just pleasant to see.

It’s pleasant to watch in motion, too; the camerawork is excellent. The high-up camera keeps your biker in shot at all times, sensibly tilting up for a more top-down perspective if a substantial obstacle is in the foreground, and the level design means that there’s no need for it to spin and turn at all during your ride; even during sequences where you’re riding “out” of the screen, you can always see sufficiently far ahead of you to be prepared for upcoming obstacles.

There’s an additional layer to this that a lot of developers don’t bother with, too: the actual cinematography of the camera is wonderful, too. It sweeps back for wide-angle shots of dramatic jumps; it tucks in closer for more intimate shots during less demanding parts of the course; it emphasises, highlights and celebrates the spectacular scenery you’re riding through whenever you pass a particularly picturesque viewpoint. Someone at Megagon Industries clearly knows their stuff with regard to film-making as much as game development — indeed, the game’s Kickstarter page notes that the game is specifically inspired by videos featuring celebrated mountain bikers Kenny Belaey and Danny MacAskill.

All of this is complemented by some of the best ambient sound I’ve heard for a long time. There is no music whatsoever in Lonely Mountains: Downhill; your rides are simply accompanied by the sounds of nature. And rather than just using a simple loop for your entire journey, this background sound changes and evolves according to which of the four mountains you’re challenging, what is nearby and even the wildlife you would reasonably expect to hear and possibly see at various points on your descent. It sounds lovely on good speakers; it’s even better on headphones.

All this would be a thoroughly pleasant, relaxing experience by itself, of course, but Megagon Industries haven’t forgotten to put some “game” in there, too, for those who want to challenge themselves in various ways. After completing the initial untimed “Explorer” challenge for each of the sixteen trails (four per mountain) in the game, you are then presented with a series of optional objectives to take on, each of which will unlock something: parts that can be spent on new bikes; customisation options for bikes and your rider; and new mountains or trails to take on.

Rather wisely, the challenges that unlock new places to ride around tend to be the most straightforward to accomplish, usually requiring you simply to get down the course without exceeding a set number of crashes. This means that you can take your time descending the course, even stopping completely to survey the situation if you recall a troublesome section from your initial “Explore” run, and just concentrate on making sure you get down as safely as possible.

Conversely, a series of timed challenges encourage you not only to take a few more risks along the way, but also to discover shortcuts. There are a lot of possible shortcuts on each of the sixteen trails, some considerably more dangerous than others, and they can shave a lot of time off your run if you’re able to pull them off effectively. You will almost certainly have to practice them, though, and they also require a keen eye to spot them in time; attempting to veer off the beaten track too late or without proper preparation will almost inevitably result in a crash.

Ah yes, the crashes. Should you come a cropper at any point in Lonely Mountains: Downhill, your rider and bike will enjoy the thrill of a physics-based crash — and, as in most sports games that offer such a facility, these are frequently hilarious if you try not to think about the fact that were they occurring in reality, you would likely be witnessing the horrific sight of someone actually dying. This is video games, though, so it’s all good; slamming into a rock, causing your rider to fly over the handlebars and land head-first in the nearby creek is a constant delight, as is inadvertently clipping a rock at the wrong angle, causing both bike and rider to topple sideways as if they had just given up on life.

The virtual cameraman is no slouch when it comes to crashes, either; there’s a distinctly Looney Tunes moment any time you fall into a particularly deep crevasse, with the camera following you part of the way down and then just allowing you to drop unceremoniously off the bottom of the screen after a short period, as if the camera crew had just gone “welp, there goes another one”. This is, for some reason, one of the funniest things I have ever seen.

Mechanically, crashes are implemented in quite a generous manner. You’ll be sent back to the last checkpoint you hit, and your timer will be reset to what it was when you reached that checkpoint. In other words, there’s no real penalty for crashing besides the ever-increasing crash counter in the corner of the screen — and perhaps missing out on a reward if you do it too many times. It’s kind of the best of both worlds — even if taking aim for a top time, you can still enjoy a few silly crashes along the way if you happen to feel like flinging yourself off a particularly inviting-looking cliff. Or indeed, if you just happen to accidentally do so along the way.

Don’t get too comfortable, though; the ultimate challenge for each of the trails is to take on the “Free Rider” mode, which, unlike all the previous ways to play, has no checkpoints. This means that any time you crash, you have to start the whole run over from the beginning. And these are pretty long courses, generally taking anywhere between two and a half and five full minutes to get from top to bottom. You’re timed on Free Rider runs and your crashes are counted, too; this mode is where you really need to get serious. Your reward? Being able to tackle the same trail at night-time, which makes for a very different experience!

Probably the best thing about Lonely Mountains: Downhill is the fact that it caters to so many different play styles. Those who like to challenge themselves can try to set some best times or meet the various objectives, with plenty of meaningful rewards on offer for doing so. Those who just want to enjoy riding down these lovely low-poly mountains can do so too; running each trail once in Explore mode and once to complete a “don’t crash more than [x] times” challenge is, in most cases, enough to unlock somewhere new and exciting to check out, allowing for a real feel of adventure. And those who enjoy making polygonal people suffer will, of course, be in their absolute element.

Lonely Mountains: Downhill was a thoroughly pleasant surprise — which is why it’s a bit of a shame that despite a positive reception and a number of awards back on its original release for PS4, Xbox One and PC in 2019, I haven’t seen many people talking about it. Here’s hoping the new Switch version will bring a few new people to the game — and if you haven’t given it a go for yourself yet? Well, let’s just say at the time of writing, we could all probably do with an experience we can just chill out with, couldn’t we?

More about Lonely Mountains: Downhill

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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