Retro games are everywhere now and though many games out there probably do sincerely try to evoke the feeling of playing a game from a bygone era, they instead often come across as trying to coast on the buzz (namely through referencing older games in their marketing) and simplistic art style alone. But when it comes time to putting money where their mouth is, a lot of these titles fall short, at best merely emulating the games of old rather than really bringing out the best they had to offer. Sure, some games break the mold and actually feel like the genuine article. JRPGs have Pier Solar, for example. Most notably, platformers have Shovel Knight. But shooting games have yet to really get THE title that brings the classic 90s monster masher to this day and age, and any effort that came close seemed to be missing the point, or only had its 90s inspiration floating on the surface.
Dusk might be the first game to really nail the look, feel and flow of the classic 90s shooter, to basically be the “Shovel Knight” of the shooter genre (legacy and popularity aside) in a sense. It’s a remarkably authentic experience that feels as if it was originally a spinoff of the first Quake that took a tad too long to be released (that’s a compliment and a testament to its authenticity). And not just in terms of appearances, either: the style, the flow, the level design, the font, every last thing. I only have the one episode to go by before it officially releases in October, but hopefully the rest of the game is as good as this portion was, because by the time I was done I was craving more.
While I’d normally put a story section here instead of talking about the tone, there isn’t really one to speak of or dissect in great detail. Basically, you play as yourself (according to the developers, not the game), otherwise known as the Intruder (or DuskDude), smack dab in the middle of what appears to be a ritual sacrifice in the backwoods town of Dusk. You fight your way through a heap of cultists through farms, caverns, cities, and facilities as you try to make your escape. Also you’re a treasure hunter. I’m not sure how that last part fits in (or what a treasure hunter would be doing in rural America) but there you go.
The tone of the game really nails the bizarre combination of horror-comedy that id Software had been known to make with its games. There’s a genuine attempt at providing a horror atmosphere with the cultists while mashing in a ton of tongue-in-cheek humor by way of unrealistic player prowess. None of the game is legitimately scary, but the atmosphere is unsettling in its own, unnatural away, with its satanic brand of Redneck Rampage pitting you against scarecrows with shotguns and cornfield mazes.
The music, animations, and models are all done in the same 90s style, but notably the music does sound like it was made to be played by modern technology. Which is nice because the tunes themselves are really good and I want to hear them with as much clarity as I can.
My biggest worry with the game is the lean towards a military theme the game seems to be suggesting will be in the next episode. I understand that a shift in atmosphere is sort of needed to keep the game fresh sometimes, but Dusk was really rocking the cult town aesthetic, and I was really hoping to see more of it. By the end of the first episode, I didn’t feel like they explored the whole concept to its fullest.
The level design is pretty great, involving lots of secrets and corridors as well as a healthy amount of arenas and open areas. Most of the time it’s entirely clear where you need to go next, although some levels require a bit of experimentation. They’re even designed with something called “Intruder Mode,” which forces you to start every level with no weapons but your sickle, forcing you to find weapons throughout each level in order to survive.
My main qualm, besides the lousy cave level, is that the game seems far too short. There are ten levels in the first episode (and one secret level I believe), and each can be completed in minutes without speedrunning. My first playthrough took me just over an hour, and that was with hunting secrets as well as wasting time with the survival mode. Given that there are three episodes it’s disheartening to think that the whole package will last only three hours upon release. Luckily I’m told map making will be a feature when the game finally releases, so that ought to provide a bit of bang for your buck, but I still hope the rest of the episodes are considerably longer: a really short campaign isn’t my idea of a fond memory of 90s gaming.
It doesn’t help that there are only three survival arenas in the complete package, with only one being available in the first episode. I never understood why some games have such a limited amount of survival arenas when there are plenty areas in the campaign which can serve as an additional map in the survival game mode. The arenas themselves are very small, compounded by the fact that you walk around really fast. While the gameplay itself is engaging enough to keep you coming back, it’s a bummer to come back to such a tiny map over and over again and not have many maps to choose from. Maybe this will change in release, but if I’m not mistaken I’ve actually read on the store page or in game that there would only be one arena per episode. The arena mode itself is rather lackluster, namely because it seems to just drag on for the most part. There’s no progression of any kind, as all the game’s weapons spawn right off the bat in the first wave. Dusk is not under any obligation to create a currency system a la Call of Duty Zombies, but having some sort of dripfeeding of weapons over the span of waves would make the experience feel much meatier and literally more rewarding.
That said, the level design itself is rock solid, enough that a second playthrough is actually enjoyable even when you know where everything is. In a way, also because you know where everything is, as just like classic games of old it lets you tackle higher difficulties knowing where to find that hidden medkit or secret weapon. Some of the secrets themselves can even be extremely obscure, to the point where I haven’t found a single secret in one of the levels displayed looking feverishly through every single possible wall. That might sound like a bad thing, but there are plenty secrets on other levels that are very easy to find to allow for getting used to the concept, and it’s nice to see that there are some secrets that aren’t so easily spotted.
Dusk’s gameplay is very much built on Quake’s ideas. The weapon switching is ludicrously fast, the character can strafe jump at incredible speeds, and of course you can carry every weapon with you at once. There are some new additions to the formula, but none that will shatter the Earth: a bunch of weapons can be dual wielded and you can also powerslide (I know it’s not literally a powerslide, yes I know what a powerslide actually is, but I’m going to keep calling it a powerslide because I just like it) faster than you can run to allow for more complex maneuvers and dodging. Interestingly you have six degrees of freedom when aiming in the air, allowing you to perform front flips by turning forward with the mouse. There’s no practical way to use it, but hey, it’s fun and makes you feel like a badass. Probably the same reason you’re a treasure hunter. Hey, the game has a dedicated Gun Flip button in place of a Reload key just so you can show off as you pump cultists full of lead. And you can actually kill enemies with it! I can dig it.
The flashlight is the biggest problem in the gameplay department. As you can see from the screenshot, it’s barely the size of one’s fist. Though there aren’t a lot of areas that actually require the use of a flashlight, those ones that do really make a it noticeable how poor the flashlight actually is. It puts a lot of strain on the eyes trying to make out what’s in front of you and adds nothing to the experience a well-lit room offers.
But hey, there’s a dedicated Gun Flip button. Excuse me while I take a break from the review to press that button repeatedly.
Okay, I’m back.
One last thing that Dusk offers is a Gravity Gun style throwing mechanism that works about as well as you can hope, minus the ragdolls. Most objects in the environment can easily be picked up with some effort and subsequently aimed and thrown at enemies. It’s a surprisingly effective tactic, even if you’re throwing regular boxes and explosive barrels. Just see how far you can get with a bar of soap. You’d be surprised.
The gunplay, itself, is spot-on. All the weapons look and feel powerful, there is no reloading, and switching between them is necessary for certain situations. Larger enemies could use the super shotgun, farther enemies could use a hunting rifle or crossbow, et cetera. There’s not much else to be said, but as the saying goes: when you’ve done something right people will think you haven’t done anything at all. Dusk combat is essentially a refined version of the first Quake, and that alone is praiseworthy
All things considered, Dusk is incredibly fast paced and reliant on aim and skill, although there is an option to crank up an autoaim feature to be hilariously high; so high, in fact, that you will hit a target just by having them in your general field of vision. Presumably this is why the game doesn’t have something akin to headshots. It makes the game dreadfully easy, true, but on the other hand it’s a nice way to get new players to get used to the fast movement of old school shooters and still have fun doing it.
For the curious, I’ve even attempted to play through the game with a gamepad. It was pretty okay! It could have been better, such as having a weapon wheel for switching weapons instead of going through them bit by bit, and I wish you could rebind the jump button to the right stick button, but other than that the camera was smooth and responsive. Aiming was easy and I didn’t even have to turn on autoaim, which is kind of impressive. It feels pretty natural on a controller.
I kinda don’t want to call Dusk a return to form. Personally, I find the idea of calling an ostensibly retro game “a return to form” regressive and capable of pushing the genre into a rut. My ideal return to form is taking the good parts of things from the past and applying it to - as well as adding - modern and new ideas to push things forward. Games like Doom 2016, which takes what was awesome about the original and revamps it into a modern design philosophy and look. However, even though it wears its 90s inspiration on it sleeve and though it may be firmly rooted in the past, Dusk is certainly not a step backwards for the genre and I’m glad that we still get to see games like this today. It really brings back and highlights a lot of great elements from past shooters that were lost to time, and Dusk is a faithful, frantic, and fun call back to nearly all of them. Now if only the rest of the game keeps up the pace. Come October we will see.