First-person shooters are, at the best of times, divisive. There are many for whom first-person shooters begin and end with the relatively realistic military stylings of Call of Duty and Battlefield, gamers who live and breathe the multiplayer experience and don’t care a whit for the bygone days of health packs and demon-infested complexes. For others, the halcyon times of DOOM, Quake, and Unreal herald the golden age of the FPS, the time when shooters were at their high-octane best. Those gamers often regard Call of Duty and its ilk with suspicion; the many changes wrought by CoD and Halo before it are bittersweet pills for them, regenerating health and military jargon antithetical to the ridiculous fun shooters used to offer.
All of this is to say that there’s a huge audience for nostalgic first-person shooters just as there is for nostalgic anything. One only has to look to 2016’s excellent DOOM “reboot” for evidence of this. No more reloading, movement faster than Sonic the Hedgehog on steroids, and a renewed emphasis on identifiable conflicts with morally uncomplicated heroes and villains. Brilliant as it may have been, DOOM 2016 is still a thoroughly modern game; its gorgeously crisp visuals, built-in codex, and concessions to modern design trends (no more generic card keys) speak to a desire to update, not wallow in nostalgia.
Thankfully, for those of us who would like a prolonged nostalgic wallow, there are games like DUSK. Developer David Szymanski conceived of DUSK long ago in the mists of the mid-2000s, when he found himself playing old-school shooters like Half-Life and DOOM on underpowered PC hardware while his contemporaries enjoyed the dubious delights of DOOM 3. Szymanski fell in love with these retro shooters and vowed to one day create a game that evoked their scrappy spirit, but development proper didn’t begin until 2015. Early on, the decision was made for the game to throw back to retro shooters as hard as possible, with the visuals, sound design, and gameplay all screaming Quake loudly and proudly. Even ancillary details like the menus and loading screens are deliberately old-school, a paean to the heady days of 1998.
There are two simple questions to ask yourself if you want to know whether you’re going to love DUSK. Question one: do you love Quake? Question two: do you wish more games were like Quake? If you answered both of those questions by nodding emphatically, then you’re going to love DUSK. If you don’t like Quake, stay far, far away from this game and never darken your library with it. David Szymanski may have drawn inspiration for DUSK from shooters like Half-Life and DOOM, but it’s definitely more indebted to Quake than either of those titles. Everything from the menu design to the color palette and the enemy design is birthed from the exact same alien pod from which Quake emerged. Unlike DOOM 2016, DUSK has no interest in modern design trends and would really rather go back to the days of square shotguns and key hunting puzzles.
DUSK takes place in rural Pennsylvania, where a network of eldritch ruins has been discovered beneath a section of farmland. Said farmland is immediately cordoned off and restricted by the government. Our hero, whose name is DuskDude (because of course), is a treasure hunter who seeks riches and has heard rumors of untold wealth within the sealed area of farmland, so he sets off to acquire as much loot as possible. Unfortunately, DuskDude’s desire for treasure untold doesn’t go down well with the locals, and soon he must fight his way through violent hordes of rural locals armed with sickles and whatever guns he can get his hands on.
In gameplay terms, this translates to a staunchly traditionalist first-person shooter which emphasizes non-linear level design and that peculiar boxy geometry so characteristic of 90s-era FPS games. The objective of each stage is to reach a goal, which is different from stage to stage. DuskDude might be searching for a tunnel to take him further into some unknowable horror’s belly or he might simply be looking for a door to delve further into a forbidden facility. Along the way, there are monsters to slaughter, secrets to find and pickups to gather, as well as an array of weaponry to discover.
If you’ve played 90s shooters, you’ve danced this dance before, so you’ll know what to expect. Insane movement speed, well-hidden secrets (though not so well-hidden as to be unfair), and zippy, fast-paced combat. DUSK delivers in spades on all three of these promises. Combat is muscular and demanding, and enemy variety is nice. New types of foes consistently reveal themselves over the 5-6 hour run time.
The weapons are cathartic and satisfying to fire. There isn’t a huge amount of imagination on display when it comes to weapon variety. The standard pistol-shotgun-rifle-grenade-launcher combo is present are ready and waiting. The one or two weapons DUSK can claim to be unique aren’t particularly interesting, but they get the job done.
DUSK‘s key strengths lie in three areas: its combat, its level design, and its atmosphere. The first episode, “The Foothills”, introduces the game’s core concepts nicely. By the second episode, DUSK has announced its intentions to cease messing around and begins proceedings for real. Episodes two and three are where most 90s FPS-lovers will get their money’s worth from the combat. Enemies constantly group together in tricky combinations that necessitate maximum exploitation of the movement and aiming mechanics.
The combat comes alive whenever DuskDude comes up against impossible odds. Firing shotguns left and right. Effortlessly switching to the assault rifle to pick off the stragglers. Using well-placed jump pads and environmental hazards to lure enemies to their deaths. There are one or two moments where DUSK feels needlessly unfair. The invisible enemies are particularly irksome if not using headphones, although the game does recommend you do so. Still, the visceral thrill of the core gameplay loop does a lot to transcend the occasional balance hiccup.
DUSK‘s level design is strong. Each stage contains huge open-ended combat arenas as well as a multitude of secret tunnels and passageways. Much of the joy of 90s first-person shooters is exploration. Even though the level geometry feels boxy and uninspired, the levels themselves are elaborate, carefully-constructed confections replete with secrets. The mazes of DUSK recreate this aspect of its inspirations lovingly and successfully.
As a horror shooter, DUSK does lean a little heavily on jump scares, but they’re organic and usually not excessive. Enemies will round a corner on you, accompanied by a major music sting. You might need to stumble through darkness and navigate dark corridors with nothing but your wits and a huge shotgun. The compelling level design of DUSK consistently surprises, although its aesthetic is a little uninspired. There’s nothing here you haven’t seen in an FPS before, though that is very likely the point.
Finally, the game’s atmosphere is top-notch, unsettling and grim without ever feeling too overbearing or self-serious. DuskDude can find beer bottles scattered around, and he can “quaff” these for a tiny health boost. There are also bars of soap to discover which can net you an achievement, but they’re worth far more than that. These little humorous touches do a lot to counteract the oppressive feel of DUSK‘s fog-laden city streets and sinister military complexes. It does occasionally veer into moments of unnecessarily blatant parody. A particular boss in the second episode immediately springs to mind. For the most part, its respectful homage to Quake and other horror shooters absolutely nails those games’ dark, sinister feel.
It’s also quickly worth mentioning DUSK‘s multiplayer mode, titled DUSKWorld. Those of you who remember Unreal Tournament and Quake‘s multiplayer component will love DUSKWorld. Like its parent game, it’s a loving throwback to retro multiplayer, reminiscing about the days before killstreaks, perks, and loot boxes. If you want to jump into a shallow but enjoyable multiplayer fragfest, you could do a lot worse than DUSKWorld. It’s not as substantial as the campaign, and I can’t see it replacing your shooter mainstays. Still, it’s a whale of a time for as long as it lasts.
All in all, DUSK is an easy sell to those who’ve played and loved Quake, Half-Life, and DOOM. Those who would very much like a game that plays exactly as they do. Inheriting the wonderful aspects of 90s shooters, DUSK‘s visceral combat, peerless atmosphere, and emphasis on exploration over blockbuster set pieces all lend it the unmistakable air of a well-constructed shooter. It does have one or two minor flaws, including the aforementioned balance hiccups and some degree of repetition. However, any flaws become easy to overlook with such a lovingly crafted final product. It is always darkest just before the dawn, but DUSK burns very brightly indeed.
TechRaptor reviewed DUSK on Steam using a code provided by the developer.
DUSK is a thoroughly unapologetic retro-inspired shooter. It's got flaws, but its excellent combat and emphasis on exploration should see it rocket-jump to the top of every shooter fan's wish list.
- Satisfying, Visceral Combat
- Great Level Design
- Varied Enemy Types
- Cathartic, Powerful Weaponry
- Lack Of Innovation
- Some Difficulty Spikes