Reviewed on: PC
Reviewer: Maiyannah Bishop
Review Play-Time: 30h
Developer: David Szymanski
Publisher: New Blood
Review Published: 2021-07-17
+ Solid gunplay with varied mix of weapons
+ Brilliant atmosphere in level design and soundtrack
+ Good enemy variety
- Runs a bit on the overlong side
- Weak first act
- Horror elements fall a bit flat
Editor's Note: Maiyannah has multiple copies of this game; the copy used was that for review. Her partner had also gifted her another one. Since the copy used for purposes of review was the paid copy, we have labelled it as such, however, we note the other copy in the interests of full disclosure. Additionally, the screenshot in the header is from the Early Access build of the game and is one of the promotional shots for the game. The cultists look a little different. Nonetheless I found it an emblematic shot, so we used it anyways.
Dusk is a first-person horror shooter developed by David Szymanski and published by New Blood. Dusk - what is there to say about Dusk? When it comes to the spate of retro shooters, none of them come to me more highly-recommended than Dusk, and I'll level with you: it is for a reason. While I was reticent to write this review because I feel it is simultaneously overrated and yet still a great game - and that makes for a difficult and interesting tightrope to walk in a review - one comes back here looking at my pile of half-finished reviews and request list of dozens of retro-inspired shooters, and I find there is no better place to start than Dusk. Want to know if it is worth getting? Well then I will save you the trouble of reading further and say yes: Yes, if you can get past the aesthetic and a little bit of jankiness. If to find that out is all you're here for then there you go; but this is by no means a perfect game either, so for the rest of you, let us break this down, shall we?
Dusk starts as it means to go on: with little establishing context we find ourselves suspended from meat hooks we break free from and having to quickly melee two chain-saw wielding farmers wearing what appear to be paper bags on their heads. It could be said this is a microcosm of the whole experience: the game does give some little tidbits of story here and there - largely through the seemingly-lost art of environmental storytelling. A picture of someone on the wall here, a message or a note there. I'm not going to get too into it for fear of the kind of spoilers that people get very shouty on the internet about, but I will say that what's there may not be Thief-level heights of this art, it's definitely pulled off well, and it leaves the story there to be explored by those whom want to have it, rather than forced in your face, like every bloody FPS after Half-Life appeared to feel obligated to do. As someone who as she ages has been finding her patience with the industry trend of cutscening us to unconsciousness running thin, I definitely appreciated that much. What's here is good, but it is not intrusive.
The hardest difficulty in the game, that very heading - "Cero Miedo" - translates to "no fear". I find it apt, and kind of emblematic of the approach the game has to things in general. This isn't a game that is looking to pants you, or use artificial difficulty to hamper you. It "just" asks you to move decisively, quickly, and to make no mistakes. To play with utmost skill to the best of your ability. This is something I suppose it's easy for me to wax poetic about these days, as I find as I age, artificial difficulty is something I chafe more and more about, but it is a refreshing approach, and I wanted to bookend the start of the meat and bones of talking about mechanics by elaborating on that overarching theme. It is a certain je ne sais quois that permeates each and every of these mechanics and while there isn't some sort of mathematical formula that I can put forward to definitively and objectively declare, "this game respects its player." Yet, I can say nonetheless, that is the impression I had while playing Dusk, and it's a lot of why I return to it, even years later now, when this review is nowhere near timely or really relevant to most. It has its failings, but they seem to be genuine mis-steps or limited resources, and a lot of what this game does right, seems to come from a place of genuinely wanting to make a good FPS. There's a lot to be said for that in today's cynical, cash-grab world.
To be able to demand such an exacting display of skill from the player and not end up being an exercise in frustrating face-rolling, a game has to have very tight controls, responsive and effective weapons, and good performance. In all three of those I had some initial misgivings with when I was playing Dusk, but as I acclimated to the game, said turned out to be rather unfounded, and I'm all the more glad for it. The game is not without flaws, and I do have a complaint with the weapons that we will get to in a moment, but for the most part it flows well, and that results in what is a high skill ceiling for Dusk, especially compared to many of its contemporaries. Let's go over each of the three in turn.
I have to admit: it took me a while to acclimate to the movement of Dusk, but I think that's more "it's not you, it's me" - and I'm not saying that to soften the blow to a jilted lover. To unpack: when I think of retro shooters, I'm from an earlier era than the various Quakes and Unreal. That time of my life was spent mostly playing RPGs if I'm honest. No, when I think of retro shooters the one that comes immediately to mind is Doom, with the Build engine games such as Shadow Warrior and Duke Nukem not that far behind. While Duke Nukem and Doom are on very different engines, the movement was more similar than it was different and very linear. Something similar to Quake - which one can tell even with a mere glance at the screenshots on its various store pages is Dusk's more direct inspiration - has a much more kinetic movement style. When I say this, I would describe it as "lurchier". This is best described with the way the guns move in Dusk, which is a little different, they adjust the angle and the camera rolls and yaws a bit with the movement. At first for me this was kind of disorienting I must admit, but it is a very crisp and precise movement (again, much as its inspiration Quake) so once I acclimated to the change, it was quick, responsive, and most importantly, mobile.
The firearms themselves are a varied lot without being too esoteric and out there. None of them are particularly breaking the mold or super-creative, but each of them are implemented well enough: each has clear and crisp sound, the projectiles are clear to see, and hit feedback enemies is instantaneous and unambiguous. For melee weapons, you have a pair of scythes, and then the firearms include a pistol (which you can get a second of to dual wield), and then a shotgun and super shotgun (both with familiar function to Doom veterans like yours truly), an assault rifle for an automatic weapon, a hunting rifle for a slow and highly accurate weapon, a crossbow to which the gimmick is the projectile overpenetrates and can hit enemies through walls and other enemies and so forth, a mortar thats basically the pipe bomb launcher from TeamFortress with another name, and the 'riveter' which is basically a rocket launcher that had it's Wheaties for breakfast. It's a standard but solid lineup, but there are also a few other esoteric additions I had not named (indeed, I'm sure a Dusk fan reading this is going: that's not everything!) There is also a sword that is a high damage melee weapon usually stashed away in secrets, the cigar which is kind of a non-weapon but you start with it and it allows you to slowly regenerate health (all while staring at one of those "S" shapes everyone of a certain age was drawing in middle school because memes or something), and finally the one, the only, the most legendary weapon in Dusk:
Subject of many memes, derisive and joking both, is Dusk's essential joke "weapon" - the soap. It is not a weapon in the true sense - but rather an environmental object. Each and every environmental object in the game have values for damage they give an enemy when picked up with the (rather wonky) physics engine and thrown at an enemy - it (not-actually-)coicidentially so happens that the value assigned to the soap for this, is 1e+09, or 1,000,000,000 damage. Each level has one soap item, that you can carry with you. It is far too clumsy in the physics engine to be throwing around more than once or twice, but it does become a bit of a panic button if you find it and drag it with you. Generally, I ended up where I used it once or twice after I found it, and then left it. It became too awkward to try to take it with me. It was, nonetheless, a sensible chuckle to defeat a boss enemy with one - if a bit of a joke that runs on much longer than the humour lasts.
Controls are a subject I really wish I didn't have to consistently bring up in reviews, if I'm honest. People often tell me that doing so is unneccesary and that they are of the opinion that I spend overlong talking about them. I certainly agree I shouldn't have to spend as much time talking about them - in a world where we have DirectInput well codified and even someone's 108-button aircraft control panel thing complete with yoke and pedals is "plug and play" we shouldn't have to keep dealing with applications that do them poorly. Yet, at least until game developers decide to stop giving the PC hot garbage ports which are half-functioning at best, we are resigned to keep having to dredge up the topic, as input delay, multiple actions on the same key or button, and similar issues continue to plague us until present, at least time of writing. I shall merely have to hope for some halcyon future where this is the case no longer.
All the same, those readers whom think I spend too much time having to delve into port control issue are quids in today with this review, saving perhaps that qualifying statement, because the final part of that trinity I spoke of before with the difficulty is those controls, and there isn't much to speak of here: everything just works. The mouse control is good and responsive without being overly so, inputs are crisp and definite without any noticeable delay, and the keyboard controls the same. Everything is rebindable, everything is on its own key, and it's simply, really, the way things should be. I shouldn't have to be this happy things are done competently, but perhaps that's a good indictment of the industry as a whole right now that this is the juncture we're at.
Departure to Destruction
Having gotten past the core mechanics, here's about where we start to find thornier roses: the level has some peaks and troughs but it's generally decent - except the first act. I know I've lost some people the moment that they read those words, but bear with me here. The later acts have very great levels which marry inventive set piece ideas with great enemy placement and challenging fights which contain an equal bit of hallway fighting and arenas, rather than favourting one over the other. The first act however - I will happily grant its a very neat series of horror movie pastiche scenes. You see some great scenes with the scarecrow enemies on the farm fields for example and whatnot. The problem is ... they are levels designed to be impressive and pretty first, and levels in a video game second. The enemy place is erratic, and several of them don't flow in an easy to follow way. Duke Nukem 3D is a particular period example: the old games retro shooters pattern after were very good about starting out very linear, and opening up as you explore them, while still making it obvious where you have been and haven't been. It makes them appear to be part of a larger world while still having a clear start and endpoint. The first Act of Dusk is very "marketable" set pieces that make very pretty screenshots and wow with some of the gimmick encounters ... but once you get past that, they are the weakest levels after the very first one, in the whole set. Enemy placement is haphazard, the signposting is weak, and they largely lack the environmental storytelling that largely stands out later on in the game.
While this is mere speculation, it is easy to understand how the first act came to be the weakest: when the game was first placed in early access, it was this first act which was out there. It had to be flashy and draw people in so they could continue development, and I cannot call it unsuccessful in that much. However, it feels to me that, while a lot of the game grew, developed, and really became something more: a highly-refined retro shooter the likes of which even I myself have come to use as a benchmark to which I compare many others, these first steps in contrast, outside of that very first level, never got that treatment, and I am of the opinion that it shows in the rougher placement, easier bound breaks, and other signs that something isn't quite right; the later acts comparable to the hurrah of a flagship product made by companies with far greater resources than the developer in this case is ever likely to have, and they punch well above their weight, so to speak, in that respect - the first, in contrast, feels more akin to the kind of mid-tier stuff you were akin to find on PlanetQuake back in the day - kind of mid-tier competently made stuff that other than the occasional standout encounter feels neither memorable nor a waste of time. Popcorn levels. I kind of feel the same towards the first act here: I played it the once, it wasn't bad, but unlike some later levels, I never felt the need or desire to go back and replay them for enjoyment. The first act would have greatly benefitted from a second pass in my judgment, but so far as I can remember from early access, the only changes were to that very first level, and that makes it easy to understand why that one is the better of an otherwise kind of sterile act.
Of course, there is a brand of irony in the reason why a simply "pretty decent" first act comes across as weak as part of the complete experience being that the rest of the game is, to my reckoning, that much better that it stands out. One thing I really enjoyed with the game is it does a really good job of ambiance and environment. The soundtrack, composed by industry workhorse Andrew Hulshult, is Andrew at his best and most comfortable: an understated, very big sound stage that creates this feeling of what I can only call energetic dread, a soundtrack evocative of the feeling that one is facing the unknown and all that comes with it, but still driven forward to explore and combat it, which I daresay is a very natural and appropriate theme for Dusk. Coupled with an evocative palette of colours, inventive level designs in the later act, and everything placed together with a coherent and cohesive construction, everything just comes together well for Dusk; I suppose that is a sentiment I am repeating here, but it is indeed the underlying assessment of the game: it has its rough points, and might have benefitted from a little more TLC. What's here is still good other than those edges, other than those edges, though, like a minature model that was brilliantly moulded but needed the sprue from the creation process weeded and sanded down a little more than it got before it was hucked in the package.
Missteps do exist here: when the game leans heavier on the horror elements, it tends to be to the game's detriment. In particular, there is one enemy called the wendigo. It's basically one of the spectres from Blood - but it is fully invisible sometimes, not translucent. Okay, you may be thinking as you read this, that sounds derivative, but that in and of itself is not all that bad. Indeed I'd agree, some of the best things are send-ups to the things we loved in the past, this whole retro-shooter genre we examine an example of now being a brilliant and pertinent example. But there is something else, and it was such a bee in my bonnet: an annoying scare chord that plays every time, and let me regale you with my suffering: I was gaming using my Samson headphones and at even at whatever the normal, default volume was for the game, that was like a every single possible decibel of high mid and low trebles smash straight into my ear-hole; something probably not helped by the DAC it was plugged into, but this isn't a huge problem in most other games because they don't decide it is a good idea to have sudden loud noises of that nature. After a while you get used to it, but it wasn't scary, it wasn't funny, it was just actively annoying. It made me not want to play those levels, and I get it this is me being persnickety about things that drive me up the wall and many people won't find it that bad, but I did find it that annoying, so here we are. That was the big one for me, but there's one other thing like that I know would drive some of my subscribers nuts. This is a game with a flashlight. Okay, kind of generally annoying, no one likes low field-of-view, especially when that vision is further constrained in a very small circle like we're some fish-eye camera on a first-generation iPhone rather than an actual human being with eyes in our skull, but the game hasn't rubbed the salt it had prepared in the wound: it has several points where the flashlight "breaks" - taking it away from you. This is meant to be all scary and make it tense, but again, this ends up being more annoying than anything, especially since muzzle flashes haven't stopped lighting up your surroundings. So I hope you enjoy navigating by the light of your firearms discharging and enemy fireballs lighting things up. No? Yeah, me either.