DUSK, from developer David Szymanski, is the game you should play while waiting for the release of Doom Eternal. It’s a fully-featured, rapidly-paced FPS that manages to do a lot with simple mechanics and deliberately aged visuals. It’s pure awesomeness rolled into a well-structured campaign that starts off in the rural part of America and ends in the pits of Hell. It’ll either make you remember the late ’90s fondly or make you want to go back to the late ’90s and play all the games it’s aping. Bottom line: it’s great and it has a killer soundtrack.
The game’s premise is deceptively simple and I’ll get into why shortly. You start off in a basement surrounded by dudes with chainsaws. Your only hope is picking up the sickles in the middle of the room and slicing the dudes with chainsaws to bits. The sense of movement speed here is incredible- you skate around the room at a break-neck pace, skirting around the enemies and timing your swipes for maximum damage. Once you break out of the building you’ll immediately find yourself on a farm surrounded by hooded fire-shooting cultists, undead steer, and sentient scarecrows, as you try and piece together exactly what is going on and where everything went wrong.
Much like the games it emulates, the story in DUSK takes a back seat to gameplay. In fact, you might be wondering why I even bothered wasting any time on describing the plot to a game whose main objective is “turn everything into hamburger with a bunch of weapons.” To understand that, let’s discuss David Szymanski briefly. He probably isn’t familiar to you, but he is the developer behind many horror-themed walking simulator games such as The Moon Sliver and the visually striking The Music Machine. These games are fairly short and tell cryptic, unnerving stories through their environment. There’s little in the way of gameplay, but I would still recommend anyone who likes the sub-genre to check out his previous work, as they’re pretty solid and fairly inexpensive.
The developer behind this has some experience with crafting stories and mood, and the most surprising thing about DUSK is that he manages to tell a fairly coherent, grounded story within the template laid out by 90’s shooters. Szymanski’s experience with horror bleeds through and despite being a total power fantasy, there are moments and areas that are decidedly creepy or disturbing.
Creepy things can still be creepy even when staring at them from behind a gun that can turn them into a fine red mist. A hallmark of a good old-school shooter is their stage variety. The supremely underappreciated Painkiller: Black is a great example of this- each level is entirely distinct from the previous. One minute you’re fighting cloaked cultists in a massive Gothic cathedral, and the next you might be blasting away at ninjas in an old opera house. DUSK has a similar variety to its levels, but to go along with its surprisingly fleshed out and well-done story, it manages to actually feel very connected, with one level leading into the next in a way that makes sense. This leads to a tremendous feeling of unpredictability as you play. You never know just what the next level will have in store, and some of the best surprises are saved for the last chunk of the game. A particularly stand-out level near the end has you jumping between floating islands and shifting gravity’s polarity in order to reach new areas.
The good thing is the story remains mostly optional. It’s nothing mind-blowing, but solid and fun for what it is. The game wisely keeps the focus on what it does best: its gameplay. There’s no other word to describe it except smooth. Controls are hyper-responsive, with the aiming reticle almost perfectly matching your mouse movements to a T. Weapons are accompanied by fantastic sound effects that make shooting them feel great every single time, which is no small feat considering you use your guns approximately 1,347,673,467,865 times per level.
You need this responsiveness too because on the standard difficulty, this game can be tough. It smartly introduces each new enemy type one at a time throughout its story before really unleashing hell on you in its later stages. Enemy designs are all distinct from one another, which means you can tell exactly what kind of threat you’re up against at a glance. It’s the kind of difficulty curve your brain doesn’t even realize is there, which is, in my opinion, a part of the magic of gaming. It makes each encounter feel fresh, even when you’ve already fought the same enemies a hundred times. Each level is filled with pulse-pounding combat that feels great.
A big part of that is the game’s fantastic soundtrack. Going back to the game’s surprising creepiness, the soundtrack knows exactly when to hold back and when to amp everything up to 11 with some of the most badass metal riffs you’ll ever hear. The music takes no back seat here—instead, it’s an integral part of gameplay, sucking you in, making you laser-focused on the combat. Much like the incredible Hotline Miami, there were times where I was so connected with the game that I didn’t realize until the music stopped that I’d barely even breathed.
The main game by itself would be enough to justify its relatively cheap price tag, but it comes with enough extras that make it feel like the complete package. Between several difficulty levels and finding all the secret areas, this adds tremendously to the replay value of the game. Then there’s an Endless Mode, where you see how long you can survive against waves of enemies in small maps taken from the campaign. Nothing we haven’t seen before, but perfect for quick bursts of the game’s tight gunplay. There’s even a multiplayer mode called Duskworld where you can bunny hop around and blast away at other players to your heart’s content.
DUSK isn’t perfect. The bullet spongy bosses tend to be more annoying than fun, and the levels can sometimes get confusing, but it’s still absolutely worth your time if you’re a fan of the recent old-school FPS resurrection brought about by 2016’s DOOM. From its wide variety of levels to its great sound design, everything about it reeks of effort. It’s all the more impressive that it’s been developed by about two people (and even then, one of them mostly just did the soundtrack).
Nostalgia is in these days to the point of over-saturation. It can be tough to find out what’s just posturing and what’s the real deal. Take it from me: DUSK is the real deal. Even now, I want to go and play a few levels just so I can experience blasting away at occult monsters for a little longer. It’s one of 2018’s best and most overlooked games, and any fan of the genre owes it to themselves to give it a shot.
Images courtesy of the game’s Steam Page.