It's been years since we had a good skateboarding game. There was the pleasant side-scrolling OlliOlli, but its sequel released way back in 2015, four years ago. Even then, it wasn't the sort of skateboarding game we grew up with, like Tony Hawk's Pro Skater and it's "more realistic" successor, Skate. In Skate, your analog sticks controlled your tricks, not random square or trigger button mashing. The EA-published skateboarding game became a hit, spawning three mainline games in total. Then the series was never really heard from ever again. (Except for when EA randomly turned Skate 3's servers back on in 2018, and it hit Xbox One backward compatibility.) Skate 4 is something of a perennial goof in any Twitch chat or YouTube comment section nowadays. Everyone thirsts for the fabled Skate 4, and it will never come.
But now there's hope for another, or at least, something close to it. Session, developed by creā-ture Studios, has been hailed as the spiritual successor to Skate ever since it started popping ollies every now and then in E3 sizzle reels. Today, it's out on Steam Early Access with all the bumps and ever-grindable rough edges you'd expect from an early access title. But it's a game with a clear vision: it's a hardcore skateboarding sim with no bullshit—maybe to a detriment.
Session is set in a micro open-world of Manhattan, and is strangely soundtracked by exclusively British hip-hop. (So much so, that I looked up the developers to see if they were based across the pond, only to find they're just up north in Montreal, Canada. So maybe they're just big Skepta fans like me; I'm not complaining!) It's an awkwardly quiet world, with nothing else going on aside from you skating on it. There are no birds that I can see, and there are no moving cars, only parked ones. There are no people in storefronts aghast at you skateboarding, nor are there any other sorts of NPCs. It's like a post-apocalyptic New York, but if it remained in pristine condition.
Still, even with the drab atmosphere, the world itself is immaculately designed. When you cruise on sidewalks, the concrete is bulging where tree roots are going awry under the surface, and with enough speed, you can launch a trick off of it. If you hit a crack or curb wrong, it will send your skater flying comically in the air. (Yes, Session has great ragdoll physics, like Skate before it.) In the Financial District, marble walls are oh-so grindable. In my few hours spent with Session over the weekend, I found myself wishing there was a little more life to match the impressive detail of the areas.
There's not really much to guide you in Session. After a short tutorial teaches you the basics of its controls—think of each analog stick as the right and left foot—it lets you loose. Skating around feels aimless, I guess like real skateboarding. I had to dig around in a menu to find any semblance of a goal. Quickly, I found daily and weekly challenges that give some random tasks to work toward, like landing a trick over a big jump, and so on.
Unfortunately, it's the controls that really hold Session back. Like Skate, it is very dependent on precise analog stick motions. It's moving around when you're not in the air when it's most cumbersome. When you're off your board, your character controls as you'd expect in any third-person game. (Though they do have a bizarre, floaty jump.) But when you're on the board, low angle framing and all, you use the triggers to turn. I loathe it. With the clunky turning, I clip the corners of vehicles and other negligible things often, sending my skater tumbling. You use A and X to pedal, with each assigned to a foot. You crouch to prepare to ollie or kickflip with the right analog stick, and from there, do more intricate moves.
Grinding is also far trickier than any other skateboarding game I've ever played, with elements like where you hit the rail, with what dominant foot, and how fast you're going influencing how the grind comes out. I also found, accidentally, that you can change your stance, which flips all the movements for tricks. Session wears the "simulation" part of its skateboarding sim description very proudly.
Without strict guidance, it's all very obtuse; maybe even more so than another hands-off game I reviewed earlier this year, the survival game Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey. With our review code, I also got a helpful list of tricks. In the weeks to come, I imagine Session will be the sort of game with a lot of crowdsourced whispers of how to pull off tricks, as they won't have a handy guide to help them figure out how to do a laserflip. It's not unlike the pioneers of skateboarding in the early 1990s that popularized the sport. And that's Session's loftiest goal.
Session even has a built in skate video creator, which is a neat addition. Skate videos were always a hobby of mine to watch growing up, even as a creek rat who fell once while skateboarding and never touched her board again. Whether as the credits of a Tony Hawk game, Spike Jonze-directed classics, or sliced into Jackass, skate videos, and the vibrant music that soundtrack them, will never not be cool.
Session lets you make and edit your own videos in-game, and better yet, share them too. As I admittedly suck at even just landing a trick off a flight of stairs in Session, I haven't shared anything yet, and I doubt I ever will. I imagine the hardcore Skate fans of yesteryear will flock to the functionality though.
As an Early Access game, Session has a lot of rough edges. Its character models are downright scary; when you enter your apartment (where you can share skate videos and customize your skater and skateboard), there is literally no sound or music at all. There are glitches too, like one where my skater disappears after I fall, and the only way to get them to appear again is to go back to my apartment from the pause menu, and then head out to skate again.
The movement itself never feels quite right, and I credit a lot of that to assigning turning to the back triggers rather than the analog stick itself. It's a shame, but I hope in the months to come we see Session do good things with it its intriguing foundation. It's been too long since we had a good skateboarding game, and Session is the closest we have to one right now, even if it hasn't landed that 900 quite yet.