Lonely Mountains: Downhill might sound like the name of a lost chapter from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, but it's even more magical than that. It's... a mountain biking game.
Now, you might not think that sounds particularly magical, and we'd be tempted to agree with you. Except that we've played Lonely Mountains: Downhill rather a lot, and it really is packed full of wonder. Even if you haven't sat astride a ruggedised bicycle for a couple of decades (guilty as charged), and have no intention of making up for lost time, you owe it to yourself to at least take Megagon's game out for a spin.
Lonely Mountains: Downhill spells it all out for you right there in the title. It's all about getting to the bottom of a handful of mountains on your bike. And don't think that the 'Lonely' part of the title is a mere poetic embellishment, either. In fact, it's essential to the game's appeal. Each mountain track that you'll negotiate here supplies a splendid sense of isolation. There's no shouty commentator, no ground crew, no spectators - not even a smidgen of music to hint at the presence of your fellow human beings. It's just you (or rather your polygonal avatar) cycling through nature. The sound of wildlife, babbling brooks, and of chunky tires carving through dirt and loose rocks are the only soundtrack here.
That and the sickening crunch of metal and bone as you plunge off a particularly precarious rock-bridge for the tenth time in a row. You see, while there's a definite zen-like quality to Lonely Mountains: Downhill, it's not afraid to bare its fangs. After an initial exploratory run down a new trail, in which you're not even timed, the game will start to set you challenges. Get to the bottom in this amount of time, or with fewer than this number of crashes, all culminating in perhaps the biggest challenge of them all: Free Rider, in which you have to complete the entire run in one go, with no checkpoints to restart from.
With such a multi-pronged approach, each of the game's 16 trails opens out into something far richer and deeper and gnarlier than they first appear. Especially when you realise that there are multiple routes to be taken that veer well off the beaten track, some obvious, and some so extreme that they almost feel like cheating. So long as you make the next checkpoint, the game will let such diversions slide, rewarding you with potentially massive time savings.
All this would be for nought if Lonely Mountains: Downhill controlled like you were riding to the shops for a pack of toilet rolls. Or, perhaps even worse, like a motorbike game. But it perfectly nails the sensation of pedal-powered locomotion without feeling arcane or restrictive.
You're essentially holding ZR to accelerate, with a press of the A button initiating a burst of intensive pedalling (essentially a turbo boost), just like in any standard car racer. But far more important than these 'go forward' buttons is the nature and gradient of the surface you're on. It's all about harnessing momentum, as your biker wallows through flat sections and slight inclines before rapidly accelerating down into valleys and skidding around banked turns.
The steering system is crucial to making you feel like you're on a bike. The default system - and by far the best in our view - has it so that that the direction you hold the left Joy-Con stick directly corresponds to the direction your front wheel is pointed. In a car racer with the same kind of semi-fixed top-down perspective, this might feel weird, but here it somehow makes more sense. This way, you can use the severity of the angle of your front wheel to carve in and lean hard into turns, or else leave the handlebar open and let inertia pull you outwards. The interplay between the various sources of acceleration and this direct steering system just feels so very right.
Indeed, you feel so attuned to your bike and its path through the game's lush environments, that collecting enough parts to unlock a new ride is a genuinely thrilling reward. One bike might well look much the same as another, especially when rendered in the the game's simplistic art style. But they each handle very differently, and are better suited to different sections of track.
Flaws? We really struggle to think of any, beyond the obvious one. Unfortunately, performance on the Switch isn't up to scratch. In both docked and handheld, we noted numerous instances of slowdown, and even the odd lengthy pause slap bang in the middle of a run. As you can probably tell from our enthusiasm so far, it wasn't enough to detract from our enjoyment of the game. That said, we really hope the developer addresses these technical issues soon, because it's the only thing keeping Lonely Mountains: Downhill from absolute mastery.
Even as things stand, this is one of the finest driving games on the Switch. And yes, we do mean 'driving'. Calling it a 'riding' game or an 'extreme sports' game would only serve to downplay and diminish Lonely Mountains: Downhill as a niche concern for a certain type of gamer. And really, we can't think of any Switch owner that wouldn't be thoroughly captivated by it after a single lonely run.
An exquisite bike racer-cum-trials game with tight controls, varied courses, and uniquely zen-like presentation. At once calming and demanding, Lonely Mountains: Downhill looks and feels like no other game on the eShop. Barring one or two disappointing technical issues, it's an absolute freewheeling delight.