Warning: Session is a hard game and will test your patience. Those aren’t my words; they’re the words of the developer, Creā-ture Studios itself, splashed verbatim on each of Session’s trick list menus. That’s a belated caveat for the presumably bewildered people mining the menus for shreds of advice on how to actually do anything in this diabolically difficult skateboarding sim. With a two-stick control system that flies in the face of generations of muscle memory, Session is a complex but very grounded simulation of street skating that can appear wonderfully authentic when executed well. However, despite the fact that it’s just emerged from several years of early access, it doesn’t quite appear fully ready for release: physics bugs, shonky trick detection, and unfriendly mission design are regular frustrations.
Since its debut demo back in late 2017, Session has been previously pegged by some as a spiritual successor to EA’s Skate series. To be honest, it’s not really a great comparison. Session’s stick-based trick controls may sound akin to Skate’s on paper, but the reality is Session’s two-stick system is far more complicated. In fact, the single-stick Skate-like “Legacy” controls Session introduced into its Early Access build back in 2020 have actually been entirely removed in the 1.0 version. Adapting to Session’s two-stick controls is now compulsory.
Bust a Move
Just like rival 2020 skateboarding sim Skater XL, in Session each thumbstick represents a skater’s corresponding foot, and executing flip tricks and grinds requires precisely finessing each stick like you’re trying to crack into a safe. Turning controls are mapped to the triggers, a mind-melting obstacle that took hours for me to hurdle after decades of that being a job for the left stick – and only compounded by the fact that turning is still mapped to the left stick in Session… when the skater is off the board. Unfortunately there aren’t any grab controls, but even without them I was regularly turning my hands into pretzels trying to make tricks.
This isn’t a bad thing per se; it’s just very challenging. However, the complexity does feel likely to be too much for some, such is the steepness of the learning curve here. I’m not confident that a lot of non-skaters or casual skateboarding fans would stick it out to crash through that initial barrier, though Session doesn’t necessarily do itself any favours in that regard. There’s actually a pretty long list of smart gameplay tuning options that can make things noticeably more manageable, but the initial tutorial doesn’t really point any of that out. The most helpful one for me was the option to change the mapping of the sticks from left foot/right foot to front foot/back foot – purists may scoff at this concession, but all the controls being in reverse when riding switch was absolutely cooking my brain. But there are many, many more – pop height, grind alignment, hell, even the gravity can be adjusted. None of this truly turns Session into an arcade skating game, but it can make it a little more friendly.
That said, it is very rewarding – in its own stern way. I’ve once again found myself swept up in the loop of an unforgiving street skating simulation (unfortunately there’s no proper vert skating or grabs) simply because I love to seek out unassuming staircases, ramps, and rails and bust tricks (and presumably digital bones) for no particular reason, until I get bored and move somewhere else.
It should also be said that the list of other places to move is impressively long, with dozens of authentic urban maps and spots of varying sizes spread across three cities: New York, San Francisco, and Philadelphia. With time of day effects and plenty of grimy, granular detail, the maps look excellent – especially at night, lit by the bright lamp of the chase camera. They are a little static and lifeless, though. For instance, piles of lightweight cardboard boxes and wheeled shopping carts are rooted to the ground and completely non-interactive, and there are no moving vehicles despite being set in the hearts of three of the most bustling cities in the US. Also, while NPC pedestrians can be turned on – an “experimental” option Creā-ture has partially buried in a menu for unfinished features – there are no NPC skaters to add a bit of atmosphere.
Creā-ture has put plenty of work into Session’s replay editor, and it can produce genuinely great clips. There’s an impressive assortment of camera types and filters available to create some properly cool skate videos with Session’s tools, although it really makes zero effort to teach you how to use them.
Session Skate Sim Screens (Nacon Connect 2022)
Unlike Skater XL, Session boasts an actual career mode, with tasks assigned by guest pro skaters scattered throughout the maps. Despite the fact most of the enjoyment I gleaned from Session’s skateboarding sandbox came from simply coasting around the maps and making my own fun, there is something to be said about having some overt objectives to conquer, especially since there’s no multiplayer. These objectives are not always particularly well explained, though, and instructions can’t be repeated if you miss something. This makes for some really annoying moments if you miss a tip, or forget it after returning later, because the mission log text doesn’t explain any extra criteria. It also has an annoying habit of sometimes not crediting the tricks it wants us to complete, even if it appears we’ve pulled them off. One early challenge to manual across a pad refused to detect the required manual despite multiple attempts. It adds a second layer of trial and error on top of an experience that is entirely built on trial and error, and it isn’t welcome. Turning on the trick names is a slight help (Session has trick names off by default) but it doesn’t solve everything.
This is actually part of a whole layer of weird bugs that undermine Session overall, from sudden and inexplicable bails on flat surfaces to ugly board clipping, and janky on-foot navigation (especially ascending and descending stairs) to seriously odd moments of limb spaghettification, like your skater is about to be sucked through a black hole. These are a real shame considering some of the awesome attention to detail elsewhere. For instance, I really love how the boards themselves slowly accumulate realistic wear and tear as we thrash them with grinds, and the sound design is genuinely excellent. There’s a wealth of subtly different audio cues for every situation, and everything from the hiss of free-spinning wheels to the clunk of steel on steel sounds spot-on. The soundtrack is a bit downtempo and dreary, though; Creā-ture has pitched Session as a tribute to the golden era of ’90s skateboarding but there’s nothing about the fistfuls of 21st century chillhop here that helps makes it sound like one.