By veering off the first sharp curve down the path, I can maneuver the bike along a steep mountain ridge that skirts past the path’s first set of turns and deposits me at the beginning of the section that leads to the tree-lined part which makes me fidgety. In that particular spot, I can veer again off the pathway and plunge along the side of the mountain at a near ninety-degree angle, then, assuming I angle the front wheel just right, zip along an ultra-narrow ridge that slices down a corner of the mountain like a thin scar.
The decision is really no decision; I take the faster, riskier path each time. I’d rather worry about two difficult sections than deal with many potential concerns.
“Lonely Mountains: Downhill” is both tranquil and challenging. Deciding how to thread your solitary rider down one of the game’s picturesque mountains makes for an entrancing experience. Likely, anyone who has ever ridden a mountain bike will have a visceral response to the action on screen, which smartly forgoes music for a nature soundtrack. The controls are intuitive (right trigger to accelerate, left to break), but mastering the subtleties of how to take a particular jump or turn on a given trail, and knowing when to accelerate, drift, break, or speed up, takes practice. With that in mind, your first goal upon unlocking a new trail is to explore it without a care for time or performance. Upon finishing it you’re then challenged to complete it in a given time limit or with less than a certain number of crashes.
The game is especially beautiful. Your blockhead-looking avatar might recall the blank-faced video game characters of yore, but the vibrant colors, dynamic lighting, and abstract forms are expressive. (Indeed, “Lonely Mountains” looks more refined than many big budget games.) The mountains are conspicuously well designed. I can’t tell you how many times, while traveling at great speed I hit, say, a tree root and knew (!) that obstacle had been positioned to trip me up. A bloody crash results in a quick restart at a checkpoint. Death feels as light as it does in an arcade — it’s easy to want to have another go, and hard to know when to end.
“Lonely Mountains: Downhill” is a beautiful marriage of aesthetics and gameplay. It has the makings of a minor classic.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.