The last few years have been a wonderful time for skateboarding game fans. The highlight, of course, was the 2020 remaster of the first two Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater games, but there’s also been the slick mobile take on shredding with Skate City and the ridiculously over-the-top OlliOlli World from earlier this year. What’s great is that each of these titles has its own distinct flavor, whether you want to get in a short session on your phone or grind through an alien landscape. Now, we have another take on virtual skateboarding — and it might be the most realistic I’ve ever played.
Session: Skate Sim is out now after a period of early access, and it’s something of a spiritual successor to the Skate series (which is itself making a comeback with a free-to-play title). The idea is that the controls are designed to better mimic the feel of really skateboarding. Each of the analog sticks on your controller represents a foot, and you pull off tricks in a similar way to riding on an actual board. So if you want to ollie, you hold one foot down and push up with the other; if you want to manual, you hold one foot partway down and try to balance as long as you can. Doing more complicated things, like grinding or flip tricks, involves combinations of pushing your feet in different directions. When you’re riding switch, the controls are reversed because your feet have switched places. You know, like actually skateboarding. The camera is also zoomed in really close behind your skater to give you a better sense of being at ground level.
It definitely takes some getting used to if you’re coming from high-score chasing arcade-style games like Tony Hawk. You won’t be pulling off ridiculous combos right away — if ever. Session doesn’t have a score system at all, in fact, so you don’t get the high of seeing big numbers flash on-screen when you finish a run. Instead, just landing a complicated trick is satisfying on its own, mostly because it’s so hard to do.
In my first hour or two, I couldn’t do much beyond land a kickflip. Any time I tried to grind a rail or even ollie over a small obstacle, my skater would go flying. Session has an unforgiving physics system that requires precision. What this means is that if, for example, you’re trying to boardslide across a rail, your board won’t automatically snap to the surface, like in many games; instead, you have to line things up perfectly in order to pull it off. Any mistake in timing or placement will cause your skater to bail like a very dramatic crash test dummy. (While the core gameplay in Session is very faithful to real-world skateboarding, the crashes are hilariously exaggerated.)
Session has a very straightforward single-player campaign of sorts, which helps teach you some basics. You can complete quests to learn moves and earn some money to buy clothes and skateboard parts. But for the most part, I’ve been enjoying figuring things out on my own, roaming the streets — Session has levels based on San Francisco, New York, and Philadelphia right now — and finding spots to try new tricks.
It reminded me a lot of skating as a teenager: I’d find a staircase or ledge that felt good in the game and then keep repeating a specific trick until I finally nailed it. It sounds tedious, but once things clicked, it was a lot of fun. I could feel myself getting better. The first time I jumped onto a ledge, went directly into a manual, and then heel-flipped out of it was so satisfying. It may sound like a relatively simple trick, and I could do it easily by mashing a few buttons in Tony Hawk. But in Session, I had to earn it.
This also means that Session is definitely an acquired taste. It has difficulty settings, but no matter which setting you choose, it’s still a challenge. One of the pause menus even displays a warning: “Session is a hard game and will test your patience. Be advised.” Much like real skateboarding, though, if you stick with it, that patience will be rewarded. And if not? Well, there are lots of other great skating games for other tastes. Meanwhile, I’ll be trying to leap down this staircase for the dozenth time. I’ll land it eventually.
Session: Skate Sim launches September 22nd on the PC, PlayStation, and Xbox.