With every evolution comes the death of potential. As a genre moves forward, ideas are left behind, forever tied to what came before. When FPS design shifted from DOOM‘s familiar hellscape to the halls of Black Mesa, the time of the DOOM-clone was over. Constricting players into tight corridors and forcing them to search for keys is old hat, at least in the eyes of most. I love a blockbuster as much as the next guy, but I’ve always found a true fascination in what can occur just under the radar and between the gaps. What if games hadn’t jumped on the polygonal bandwagon so early? How would the Game Boy era change if the hardware had been more technically capable? What does a PS2 game look like in 2008? DUSK is one of those stories, a game from an alternate dimension where DOOM never died.
You awaken to the sound of chainsaws. You throw yourself into the action wielding nothing but a pair of sickles. A trio of hooded hillbillies fall to your blades. Bloodstains coat the walls, some spelling out glyphs in an ancient language. Guns hide in nooks and crannies, almost as if other would-be saviors have already passed through these halls. DUSK‘s world is beautifully familiar, a high res recollection of adventures past that proves the rose tinted glasses right for once. Combat is just as furious as you’d expect, letting you shove a shotgun into a foe’s face at a hundred miles an hour. The quiet moments leave you chilled, with just the muffled growls of monsters to accompany you. Anyone who’s spent a late night conquering the Strogg will feel right at home here.
Still, this is an old-school game, and those infamous key hunts are as real as ever. It’s not out of the question to spend a half hour bumbling around after missing something vital. That’s no fun, but it is authentic, and I’m not sure a GPS arrow would help matters. There is room for compromise, especially on lower difficulty settings, but I don’t know if someone coming up today would get it. Everything feels intimate in a way that modern games just don’t. It’s possible to touch every corner of a given map, and you might need to in order to find that blue key. This makes the backwoods world of DUSK feel unreal, but that’s probably fine in a game where crossbows can shoot through walls.
Even early boss fights, something that DUSK‘s forebears struggled with, are a welcome challenge. They are a grand reward for survivors of the first episode’s gauntlet. As should already be clear, I agree with our previous coverage of DUSK‘s first episode. It is here that the game runs on all cylinders, balancing nostalgic feelings with modern combat and fun level design. Treasure troves hide behind grates and cracked walls, begging you to keep exploring. Each encounter feels rewarding and challenging at the same time. I utilized every bullet, rivet, and grenade I acquired in a desperate bid for survival against these beasts. I came out the other end eager for more.
Starting up the second episode, I felt I was playing an entirely different game. The mystic hillbillies are replaced almost completely by a militaristic faction that prefers ranged combat. This changes everything about what you’re doing but doesn’t give you the new tools you need to rise to that challenge. Some might welcome the change, but I just missed how dominant the shotguns were as I explored each new level. I never felt the same rush as the difficulty rose higher and higher. The secrets that were so fun to find before became a chore. After all, exploration becomes harder when your reward for ducking into an out of the way room is a face full of stationary turret fire.
I truly appreciate the variety on display here, and there are some great ideas thrown into the mix later on. A climbing based pickup gives you unlimited room to scale walls and scope out huge areas. The boss fights take advantage of interesting mechanics, even if the one based on avoiding a bottomless pit proves why first-person platforming is never the answer. There are great ideas here that execute well. It’s just that all these ambitions don’t make for a good follow-up to what came before.
To truly enjoy DUSK, you have to take it on its own terms. As a cohesive experience, it peaks early and stalls out with only brief glimpses back to its past glories. As an FPS compilation, it morphs into a near perfect retro revival presented alongside a fun but forgettable bonus campaign. Either way, the two episodes form a nice bundle alongside an arcadey endless mode and a full deathmatch client. With a third episode still on the way, we’ve yet to see if DUSK can really be taken as a whole. Despite the flaws, what is here still blows most DOOM-clones out of the water. It just goes to show how long it takes an industry to truly recapture that id magic.
Our DUSK Early Access impressions were conducted on PC via Steam with a key provided by the publisher.