Newly released on Nintendo Switch, Lonely Mountains: Downhill has been catching attention on other consoles and PCs since last October. But it is now, stuck indoors in an urban flat, that I have really needed this game about solitary mountain bike adventures in nature. It is an intriguing hybrid of serene exploration and reflex-challenging speed-chasing, and is engrossing from the first moment – each thrilling downhill run begins with a moment of pure stillness at the peak, one foot on the ground, the wind whistling in your ears.
With minute adjustments to the bike’s trajectory, you plummet down serene mountains, either following dirt paths or veering off-road to cut trails between rocks and trees. It’s like Trials, the motocross puzzler masquerading as a racing game, except instead of roaring engines and screaming guitars on the soundtrack, you hear rustling leaves, birdsong and the quiet clicking of gears. On the verdant Mount Graterhorn, butterflies flit around conifers; the more treacherous Sierra Rivera is devoid of anything but windblown dust, jutting rocks and the occasional cactus.
But this isn’t a chill time in nature. Several times a minute you’ll thunk headfirst into a tree trunk, fly off the edge of a cliff, slip from a tree trunk bridging a river, or meet a painful-looking demise, starting again from the last checkpoint. Early routes aren’t difficult to navigate once you get the hang of steering and managing the bike’s speed, but some sections of the later trails are fiendish – one took me 70 restarts to get through. The sense of accomplishment that comes with mastery, however, is worth the sting of repeated failure.
Whenever a new trail unlocks, you begin with an exploration run, with no challenges beyond getting to the bottom. Goal times come later. This structure tempers the frustration of these tricky courses, letting you wind your way down a mountain with one finger permanently on the brake before attempting the freewheeling, dangerous descents that yield high scores. Every time I unlocked another bike, the courses felt new, as sketchy-looking off-road shortcuts suddenly became achievable with fatter tyres and better suspension.
The ultimate reward for conquering a trail is the chance to ride it at night, in eerie quiet, picking out a route by the bike light alone. This is a bit of an evil joke, rewarding you for finally nailing a tough challenge with something even tougher, but I felt chills the first time I went skidding down Redmoor Peaks in the dark.
I have become obsessed with this game in the last week, with the moments of quiet, uninterrupted, intense concentration it has given me at a time when focusing is difficult. The game has a simple concept, executed very well, with precise controls and finely balanced difficulty, but it is the magical ambience and an urge towards self-mastery that keep drawing me back, hurtling downhill with my heart in my mouth.