Lonely Mountains: Downhill goes murderously fast but appreciates stopping for a good view
A series of lovely mountain biking adventures
My cycling tour of video games is almost at its end but we're in no hurry. Let's pause for a wee break, like in Lonely Mountains: Downhill. The mountain biking game is full of gnarly descents, dangerous jumps, and barely controlled skids, but also has secret spots where you can sit down and enjoy a nice view for as long as you like. Lonely Mountains is a collection of little adventures, each leading to your tent at the end of the day. Delightful.
Lonely Mountains: Downhill is a singleplayer game about bombing it down mountain tracks on a bicycle. Controls (I used a gamepad, though it has mouse options including following your cursor) are simple: pedal; brake; steer; and sprint. This is enough for a good-feeling bicycle, which acts pleasantly bike-y across movements from a gentle turn on a flat path to desperately locking the brakes and slalom-skidding through a murderous descent dotted with trees and boulders. If you do slam into obstacles (or zoom off a cliff, or waterfall, or...) and burst your little low-poly body, you can instantly restart at the last checkpoint by hitting A. It's very friendly to start.
On your first trip down a course, you simply need to reach the end. No timer, no list of objectives, just explore and go. From there, escalating difficulty levels bring tighter times and challenges to unlock more courses on the same mountain, as well as whole new mountains, and outfits, paints, and parts to buy bikes with different stats. The escalation of challenge is satisfying to rise to.
Quickly I realised I could cut corners off the obvious well-worn path. I tried to improve my times with little cuts as well as better use of my limited sprint energy, better cornering, and more bravery with not braking. Then I explored more and started discovering whole alternate routes, hidden paths that might cut off a long winding descent if I can nail a series of body-bursting jumps, bounce down boulders, or follow a narrow safe strip. You can go anywhere as long as you hit the checkpoints in order. As I become more confident with the fundamentals of its cycling, I become bolder with my routes. You need to pull all this together for the trickier challenges. It's scratching that Neon White or Trackmania itch for me.
I enjoy getting to know a mountain by learning nooks and crannies as I repeat routes to shave seconds. It's especially delightful to unlock new courses on the same mountain and recognise familiar spaces, to pass through a segment of another route or visit a place previously seen from afar. This is amplified by the fixed camera position which often has you cycling towards the screen, making the path ahead constantly reveal surprises until you have it memorised.
Yet the greatest reward of exploration isn't speed, it's outright stopping. At hidden 'resting places', you can press Y to have your character dismount for a nice sit-down. They pick somewhere scenic to stretch their legs, shake out their arms, and take in the view. It is wonderful.
Lonely Mountains is very pretty, built of angular low-poly models, stippled textures, and square particles. It looks like dioramas, especially with the gentle tilt-shift camera effect, yet feels far more real than many games I've played across my Tour (tch, 'realistic' art styles!). Without mediocre detail cluttering the view, attention is focused on what is there, amplifying its presence. I see moss-capped rocks, the last yellow leaves clinging to the aspen, clusters of flowers, fungi on fallen trees, dragonflies and butterflies flitting about, and perching birds that flit away as I pass, filling me with a sense of the outdoors.
It sounds great too, a lively soundscape of nature. The world is often louder than the bicycle; we are but one being sharing this space. It feels like an adventure, especially with each course ending at your tent.
I should pause for interesting sights more often on my real-world rides. Unless I'm cycling with pals, exploring somewhere new, or just running errands, I usually head towards a beautiful view yet rarely stop. My regular 17km evening loop takes me to the end of a beach where I'll see the sun set behind the Forth Bridge but only slow to enjoy the whirr of my freehub as I round a big turning circle and head home. My usual weekend 80km route heads in the opposite direction and ends up a hill overlooking Bass Rock, my trachyte wife rising radiant from the Forth in a white coat of guano. I'll make moony eyes at her while eating a banana then turn back downhill once it's gone. Bit of a waste.
I did pause often when these routes were less familiar. I'd go slow through Prestonpans, admiring the hundreds of painted stones laid out along a wall and hoping to find new ones as good as my favourite, a giant quizzical mallard head. At North Berwick, I'd push my bike a way along the clifftop then sidle down the side and lay in the long grass above the beach.
Sadly I think I have fallen into routines during a difficult and aimless year of my life. I hate to admit it but I've developed Strava brain, becoming over-invested in the sense of progress and purpose from a rigid structure of chasing numbers. It can feel difficult to seize the little pleasures which require a curious and calm mind. It takes more effort to become still than to cycle 80 kilometres.
A series of resolutions: resume stopping for gawping along the way; cycle more unfamiliar routes; and absolutely take advantage of all opportunities if/when I get into bikepacking (I'm feeling inspired after playing a visual novel, Aran's Bike Trip). If a video game about deadly downhill mountain biking can make time for it, so can I.
We should get back on the cybertrail. I think the next game will close out our Tour De Jeux.