Session: Skate Sim review – a deeply rewarding simulator in need of some flair

Flawed, mean and rough around the edges, Session captures more real skateboarding than almost any game that came before it.

Skateboarding is hard. Really hard. The journey to mastery takes years, if not decades.

Land a kickflip while moving forward? Of course, today there are much more complex tricks, but this is still a tremendous achievement. It takes hours of investment and a deep resilience to failure to get there. But the moment you get the board high, spin it with one foot just enough to spin once under you, and successfully commit to the landing, the payoff is immense. It is not an achievement rewarded in any currency like the score. On the contrary, succeeding is more than enough as a reward.

It is this state of mind that clearly founded the design of Session: Skate Sim. Granted, it’s not as difficult as real skateboarding, but it’s a game that’s deeply challenging and makes you think like a skateboarder. The clue is in the name. The developer creà-ture Studios has tried hard to offer a skateboard simulator. In doing so, they’ve built something that does an outstanding job of capturing the essence of real skating; even if this approach is sometimes at the expense of what makes a video game always enjoyable. To deconstruct what that means, the conversation inevitably begins with an iconic series.

For many years, Tony Hawk games triumphed by abstracting skateboard tricks into various series of button combinations, allowing players to string together lines of impossible tricks that could traverse an entire level. The skill ceiling offered by Hawk’s games was certainly high, but almost anyone could jump in and skate quickly like a pro, happily pushing all sorts of buttons. Then, in 2007, EA Black Box released the beloved Skate, which at least hinted at simulation. His innovative thumb-based control system, inspired by the subtle foot movements of real skateboarding, allowed him to feel much more directly informed by the sport that inspired him.

Here’s the launch trailer for Session now that it’s fully out of Early Access.

So many years later, Creā-ture Studios has taken the Skate initiative and run with it, delivering something so committed to simulator territory that it could be considered a genre companion to Train Sim World. as much as with the Tony Hawk games. As such, like real skateboarding, it’s a difficult, frustrating and deeply rewarding experience. While the likes of sublime OlliOlli games – which emphasize the timing of trick landings – have deftly translated the spirit of skateboarding into a playful video game form, Session is unabashedly devoted to realism. In its peculiar, imperfect way, it captures more about skateboarding than any game that has come before it.

What will be familiar to those who have spent time with the Tony Hawk or Skate games is the setting; a vast urban expanse explored in three dimensions, littered with street furniture perfect for grinds and flip tricks. And yet, it’s a game with no scoring system, no hidden collectibles, and very few opportunities for stunt skating. Frills are rare here. You won’t even get a tower name displayed when you complete it. The motivation for playing is to explore skateboarding, and the reward is pulling off tricks, often after a considerable investment of time. During your first hour, you should start hitting kickflips on the flat. Many more hours, just timing a 360 degree flip to cross a sidewalk and land on a concrete planter can still go wrong in all sorts of ways.

Session’s unique playing feel is delivered through a combination of its physics system and controls. Depending on your position, one controller represents the front foot and the other the back foot. If you are standing firmly on the board, push in a particular direction to place the weight of each foot. Pull in with your back foot and – just like real skating – you put all the weight into it, coiled up like a spring and bristling with the potential of kinetic energy. Push the other foot forward and an ollie begins. Based on this, different moves, moves, and foot placements can trigger everything from a humble shuv pop to a monstrous nollie pressure hardflip 360.

Want to get out of a manual trick? Shift your weight appropriately on the deck. Need PowerSlide to a stop? Push each foot towards the nose and tail of your deck, and the board reacts accordingly. It would be an exaggeration to say that every controller movement absolutely mirrors the control method of real skateboarding, but it comes closer than any other game.

Skate Sim Session Test - Grinding on a rail under a busy highway

Then there’s how the physics of the game world shape what’s possible. When it comes to grinds, the norm in skateboard games is that, to a greater or lesser extent, when jumping over a grindable object, the board snaps onto the rail or edge. This is not the case in session, where there is no discernible help there. You’ll need to approach an obstacle with the right angle and speed, spin around with careful timing, then land with the weight of your feet as it should for various grinds. Connect with an off-center rail by a fraction on a single truck, and the grind will most likely crumble – or you might discover a new trick or approach.

Dive into the game’s many settings – including some “experimental” options that bring beta energy shots – and you can really start to push what’s possible with a board and further explore a control system with enormous breadth for discover new things.

Even with the default settings, discovery defines the journey. The session narrative is minimal, but it could be a spoiler for how to do a triple flip, for example. It’s truly wonderful to be freed from a predetermined list of tricks, each assigned to an abstract chain of button presses. Real skateboarding is about exploring and seeing the redefined urban terrain through a playful new lens. Session gets a lot of right in translating that experience. It gives you a skateboard, gravity, control of your feet, concrete strips and rails, and lets you decide what might be possible with this combination.

Session Skate Sim review - standing in a public square in pretty drab gray clothes

And yet, Creā-ture Studios’ creation is also a very particular beast in terms of how the whole experience is framed. Visually, on the PS5, it’s functional rather than striking or exciting. There are some nuanced touches, such as how your wheels, grip, and even your clothes pick up dirt and wear. But much of the presentation is no frills.

Even if you turn on pedestrian likes in the sets, its cityscapes are tonally dead; often strange in their strange emptiness. Meanwhile, the cast of other voiceless skaters you meet seem rather too hollow. Even your own character lacks any sort of presence, turning into a rag doll every time you step off the set – which happens a lot.

Session also makes some unusual choices in how it communicates the game to you. A chain of missions takes you through the game, introducing techniques and pushing you into new areas. While you can pull current objectives from the pause menu, the text that provides mission details cannot be revisited and becomes increasingly rich in skateboarding jargon. So if you’re running out of text or not fluent in the language of skating, all too often you find yourself a bit lost on how to progress. Elsewhere, it’s easy to miss that you can teleport between multiple towns, and the map is stripped down at best.

Session Skate Sim review - chat with an NPC outside a modern red brick building

Again, the comparison with the wave of dark train and truck simulators of recent years is justified. This is a game about realism rather than atmosphere or any attempt at dynamism. There are concessions to tone. A catchy soundtrack emphasizes genres like dancehall and ragga, and it’s possible to customize your clothes and board. But don’t expect to dive into the skateboarding lifestyle, or the colorful style.

Unabashedly, Session is a game about function and captures what it’s like to skate; not so much the surrounding culture that the sport transmitted to the general public. Like real skateboarding, it rewards perseverance. It’s a lonely pursuit that can feel demanding and flat at times, but is very hard to stop.

Session is also something wonderful. When it all clicks, it doesn’t get much easier, but when you finally pull off something as simple as a kickflip to a tailslide, you feel like the most accomplished player in the world. For those of us who skate, Session brings something magical, even if it has a lot of weird flaws. If you haven’t touched a deck since the one you got at a toy store as a kid, and don’t mind a challenge knocking on the door of what bullet hell shmups offer , it is truly fascinating and can be deeply rewarding. Persistence pays off, in what might be the extreme sport genre’s most distinct contribution to date.