Session: Skate Sim Review
A half-pipe dream
The skateboarding subculture dominated and thrived in the late 90s, with it having trickling effects on daily life in that era. Whether it was music, fashion or Mallrats holding a skateboard when window shopping, thinking they looked "rad" when socializing with friends. It was hard to ignore the imprint it had on young people growing up at that time. These influences didn't end there; they also emerged in video games, the most notorious example being Tony Hawk's Pro Skater franchise. But like all trends, they go through stages of popularity and obscurity. Although, in recent times, skateboarding games have made a resurgence, where new and old players alike have experienced jumping into the air from a virtual quarterpipe. After two years of development, Session: Skate Sim has left early access and has been released in its 1.0 version, but how does it fair compared to other skateboarding games?
First and foremost, it's important to highlight that Session: Skate Sim is a simulation game created to emulate the feeling of being on a real skateboard. As a result, it's a startling contrast to the arcade frenzies of Tony Hawk, where pressing one or two buttons will allow you to perform rip-roaring tricks within moments. Instead, it attempts to convey the feeling of learning how to skate in real life, as it will be a prolonged process of teaching yourself through timeless trial and error. So, if you're looking for an instant adrenaline kick like snorting wasabi paste after a dare, you won't find it here.
For the most part, the story is reasonably disinteresting and will struggle to grab your attention. However, the basic gist is you are introduced to an old school friend called Donovan, who comments on how it's great to see you back in action on the board. You then discover you were involved in a brutal accident, where you wiped out trying to perform an incredible stunt and have been off the scene for a few years. Donovan then conceitedly drops that he recorded the whole incident and that the footage is one of the best-viewed videos on his social media; with friends like that, who needs enemies? With new resolve, your character begins relearning the basics to start their long journey to become a pro skating whizz once again.
The main story is broken up into missions, requiring you to perform certain tricks under particular conditions to move on to the next task. Sometimes these objectives could be rather tricky, like the advanced manual and flip tricks missions you encounter at the beginning of the game. Probably the most challenging is the skate shop meet-up quest, which requires you to pull off a bunch of moves that will be sure to boil steam from your head, as it's a grisly challenge to complete. Although there is a healthy amount of missions to take on, the plot will never motivate you to achieve them, as not many noteworthy developments ever happen, which is a bit of a shame. But when you finally fulfil the requirements for a mission after many attempts, it's incredibly satisfying.
The controls will be the most significant barrier to entry for most players, regardless of which difficulty setting you pick for yourself. At least, if you've played Skater XL, you'll find it easier to adjust to the controls as the button commands are highly similar. The thumbsticks dictate the foot movements; the left leg is paired up with the left stick, and surprise, the right leg is married up with the right stick (hence a controller is required, playing with keyboard/mouse is not supported). If you want to accelerate on your board, you can move your left foot with the X button, and your right foot corresponds with the A button. To achieve a fundamental trick or jump, you must crouch with one leg by holding down the stick it corresponds with and then flicking the other. If that's not enough of a jawbreaker, executing a BS 50-50, one of the moves you learn in the basic tutorial, involves quite a few steps. Performing the trick will require you to find a grindable surface like a flat bar, head towards it with some speed, so your jump will have some height, and then hold LS upward and RS downward. As you can tell, there are a ton of input commands to perform the simplest of tricks that will undeniably be frustrating and equally daunting for many casual players. It will take a lot of time to be exposed to the controls for the muscle movements to come naturally on the controller. But, for those who dedicate the time, it is thoroughly rewarding when the control scheme finally clicks into place, and you start performing tricks you once struggled with effortlessly without thinking.
You'll probably glean the most fun by ignoring the focal plot and finding your own entertainment by skating around in the sandbox environment. It's almost therapeutic in a way, just slapping down your skateboard onto the concrete as you slide your board wherever the mood takes you, with no goal or destination in mind. You could travel to a skatepark and attempt a nose stall on a ramp or try and get the cleanest heelflip possible down a staircase; the options are endless as the entire world feels like one big playground for you to discover.
Aesthetically, the sandbox world looks great and is reasonably large to explore. You can skate through iconic Americana landmarks such as San Francisco, Philadelphia and New York City. Nearly every district looks different and will have subtle environmental factors that make the locations pop out, from graffiti sprayed on the walls to everyday facilities you would see in a town. If you toggle around in the options, you can add pedestrians to the world, and there is even an object dropper, where you can add rails and ramps into the environment, making the world feel a bit more full. Perhaps the coolest feature is the day and night cycle. When it turns into the evening, it creates a scenic atmosphere as you skate through the environment with dim lite lampposts illuminating the urban street nightlife. The character designs are relatively decent; before you start the game, you will have a selection of preset models to pick from, including renowned skaters, or you can create your own character. Luckily, you can edit their clothes for a bit more individuality, and after completing missions, you will earn in-game currency to buy new clothing, or you can choose to purchase new skateboarding customisation gear like deck graphics, rails or wheels.
The camera perspective is unusual in Skate: Session Sim, although it's not necessarily bad, just different. It adopts a third-person perspective, but you follow your skater at a much lower angle than you usually would, almost as if you were seeing through the lens of someone trailing with a camcorder. The influences of camera photography don't stop there; if you want to embrace the inner film director within you, there is a replay editor where you can capture awesome moments you are proud of while skating around the city. In addition, you can add many cool effects to the footage, including changing the clip's length and camera angle. You can also add keyframes to specific seconds on the clip that will allow you to change the depth perception or the speed of the footage at different points.
On a technical level, a few performance issues hinder the experience. Occasionally, the skater character would ride through some environmental objects, breaking the immersion. But the constant crashes are what really hurt the experience. This usually happens on the options menu, which doesn't sound too bad on paper. But the problem is that with the tricks having elaborate input demands, you'll often find yourself referencing the trick list in said menus. Hopefully, they can address this aspect in future updates, but for now, it really impacts the learning curve when trying to grasp the controls.
To its credit, Session: Skate Sim strives to be a realistic experience that embraces the street skating mentality. It attempts to portray the endless practice hours you would experience in real life when trying to learn the physics behind a stunt for the first time, and because of this, it adopts a complex control scheme centered around the thumbsticks. Even though the control layout succeeds in creating a realistic tone, this then makes the simplest of moves an ordeal to perform and will probably scare a good chunk of casual players from the game. If I hadn't had exposure to Skater XL, which also focuses on the thumbsticks controls, it would have probably taken hours for the panel layout to come naturally, but I did have a lot of fun when I eventually grasped the commands and was able to pull off some amazing stunts. Unfortunately, the game feels unpolished at this point due to the constant crashes, so it's hard to justify the price tag. This feels disappointing as an incredibly in-depth and challenging game is underneath the surface, but it's not quite there yet. Ultimately, players who can ignore its flaws and stick around devoting time to learning the hard-to-master control layout will feel much satisfaction.