DUSK is a delicious cocktail of nineties shooters

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A lot of people are comparing DUSK to Quake. They’re not wrong to do that; there are enough brown polygons and chunky weapons to bring back memories of nailguns, ogres and Trent Reznor’s ominous drones.

My mind turned to Blood though. DUSK begins with b-movie horror tropes as chainsaws whirr and cultists shriek threats, and from there it takes a tour through pretty much the whole of nineties shooters, as I remember them.

Currently in Early Access, DUSK is unashamedly retro. It’s a first-person shooter like they used to make ’em, or at least that’s the intent. The good news is that it manages to avoid being the retro game equivalent of an observational comedy stand-up, hoping that simply jogging your memory will provide sufficient entertainment.

“Remember rocketjumping?” Such a character might say, sweating in the club’s cheap floodlights and nodding to a chap in the front row. “They discovered how to do it by accident, didn’t they, sir? The players. It wasn’t intended to be a workable tactic.”

Somebody at the back of the room scoffs.

“This lady just remembered the first time she telefragged her old man. What a palaver, eh?”

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DUSK has too much energy to fall into that trap. As soon as the first scene fades in, you’re being attacked. No build-up, no plot to speak of, no table-setting. There are angry people trying to murder you in a basement.

And then there are coloured keys to collect and secrets to discover, and hordes of monsters to kill. Hordes might be a bit strong actually. DUSK has open areas where you could pack in masses of its murderous scarecrows or Satanic goats, but I’ve been spending most of my time indoors and underground, squeezing through corridors and tunnels, and taking on what I’d describe as gangs of enemies rather than mobs.

The main difference between this and Quake is the setting. If I were to ask you what the setting of Quake is – the first one, not the Stroggy sequels – what would you say? It’s crusty, rusty, Lovecraftian medieval sci-fi, isn’t it? There are teleporters and lightning guns, but there are also knights in armour with swords, and those ogres with grenades in one hand and a chainsaw in the other. The level design is fairly abstract. Sure, this place might be a lab or a storage facility, and that might be a castle, but what do any of them really have to do with one another?

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DUSK is much simpler. There are farms and churches and houses with working sinks and toilets. It’s using a relatively lo-fi visual design to describe real places, and I like that. It’s fun to shoot a cultist in a kitchen and then throw a block of soap at a goat, just or kicks.

What is lost, in that leap toward more recognisable environments, is the convoluted maze-like architecture that sometimes defined Quake. As the levels roll by, DUSK does start to explore stranger places, but it feels more straightforward than many of its inspirations, for better and for worse.

And Blood is absolutely one of those inspirations. DUSK isn’t as cheeky as the Build Engine splatterfest but it’s soaked through to to the bone with many of the same horror tropes. It’s neither a spoof nor seriously scary, but it feels sincere in its embrace of the tasty schlock that makes up its environments and enemies.

But you probably want to know how it feels.

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It’s hard to describe ‘feel’. I can say that Quake was fast and just the right side of floaty, but I think the level design plays as much a part in that as some nebulous ‘feel’ to the movement and shooting. A badly designed level can kill the feel as quickly as my nineties mixtapes* can kill a party.

DUSK’s levels aren’t badly designed. The more I play them, the more I think they might be very well designed. At one point, I fought my way through cellars and caves, found an underground temple-dungeon, and figured I was near the end of the current level.

To my surprise, opening a door led me back to the beginning of the level. I’d found a secret and gone through the whole thing backwards, tying myself in a knot.

I love that. The levels sometimes seem quite simple, a few buildings connected by paths and open spaces, but there is so much to discover beneath the surface. And the open spaces are often imaginative as well, particularly an early cornfield in which the scarecrows absolutely definitely do not re-enact that one recurring nightmare I had when I first watched the Wizard of Oz.

The odd thing is that for all that I like about DUSK, and there is a lot to like, I’m missing something. Maybe it’s ‘feel’. Maybe I won’t be able to put my finger on it, but I’m going to try.

Quake, Blood and even Rise of the Triad made me feel like I was teetering between godhood and death. In a split second, I’d go from almighty dispatcher of demons and other bad sorts to a stain on the floor. They were empowering even though death could come quickly, and there was a fragility to my character.

DUSK feels much more methodical in comparison. It’s more ambitious than it looks, seemingly planning a grand tour of all the first-person shooters you might remember rather than trying to emulate one of them. It definitely isn’t that comedian I described earlier, simply riffing on nostalgia, but it does feel a little reconstructed. Not formulaic, because it has its own tone and some wonderfully inventive level design, but there is a predictability about it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; I am very much enjoying rediscovering my reflexes, and DUSK is as good a take on the games of my youth as I’ve played in a long time.

But I don’t find it thrilling; I find it comforting. And that’s a very odd thing for a game about killer cultists to be.

That’s the singleplayer though. The multiplayer, which I haven’t explored all that much, seems like it might be very thrilling indeed. It’s much more demanding, because people are quick and unpredictable, and makes use of verticality in ways that I hadn’t even considered while playing the campaign.

I’m going to rope someone in for a few games so we can deliver some kind of verdict about just how good that multiplayer feels.

DUSK is available via Steam for Windows and is in early access.

*The Longpigs feature heavily

18 Comments

  1. haldolium says:

    DUSK for some reason feels much more like a title that was actually made in the 90s instead of an retro skin on a modern game.

    I’m not overly fond of the setting, but thats just my personal taste. The game (singleplayer) is truly great and very well made.

    • poliovaccine says:

      Having just lately gotten to try a bit of Episode 2, I gotta say, that’s pretty much spot on. It feels weird to say, cus I’m sure it was said in a sort of half-hearted or lazy way, was maybe even said hopefully, about games like Strafe or other such 90s/id/Build engine revivalists – I want to say that about it, but then add “no but really though” to the end of it every time.

      It’s hard to even say what mark it hits that Strafe was missing. As infuriating as it must be for the devs of Strafe to read something like this, it really does just come down to a certain *je ne sais quois*… Someone who’s a far more academic student of the 90s shooters will be able to suss it out, I’m sure.

      • Baines says:

        I think Mr Icarus (ICARUSLIV3S on YouTube) did a pretty good job covering what Strafe missed in his review video last year.

        My own view:
        Strafe was not a 90s FPS. Strafe was a 201x Roguelite FPS that used the idea of a 90s FPS as its general setting. That isn’t just a look-and-feel distinction, it is the integral core of its design. Strafe bore more similarity to other 201x Roguelite indie/retro FPS than it did 90s games.

        As for the “general setting” being that of a 90s FPS, it was a shallow presence at best. If Strafe was actually trying to be like a 90s FPS(*), then it was a copy of an idea of a 90s FPS, imagined by someone with little understanding or knowledge of 90s FPSs. (The Mr Icarus review that I mentioned above hits some particular examples.)

        (*) I’d argue that Strafe, despite its early trailer and promotion, never really intended to be a 90s FPS in the first place. It was always a 201x Roguelite FPS first, with “90s FPS” being the thin coat of paint for its setting.

  2. DrJ3RK says:

    Hmm… The pictured enemy looks like the enemies in Rolling Thunder. :D

  3. unclellama says:

    remember observational comedy? do you? DO YOU?

    • LennyLeonardo says:

      Here’s the thing about observational comedy: it’s just people describing dryly things, with no real insight. *Pause for laughter*

  4. TheTingler says:

    Did you play through both Episodes? I feel that the second Episode got much stronger, and certainly tougher.

    I do wish they’d gone all-in with being like Blood though, with full B-Movie fun, dry quips and head-football aplenty. Still, it’s exactly what I wanted it to be – FPS comfort food.

  5. BathroomCitizen says:

    I too feel that there’s something missing. Let’s be clear though: DUSK is quite good, but to me it’s not quite on par with id Software’s Quake. Id Software and other games from the 90s always had a bit more ‘oomph’ in term of weapons-feel, sound design and (I know, it’s weird) monsters’ charisma.

    Maybe it’s that I grew up with them, but real ’90s shooters have some sort of mystical grittiness to them – you can’t really put your finger on what made them so special.

    P.S. bear with me, it’s been a long day and I may have written some quite stupid stuff.

  6. milligna says:

    Pretty much every FPS is still a cocktail of 90s shooters.

  7. satan says:

    How is the air acceleration/bunny hopping? Bhop speed able to increase indefinitely or is there a cap? And if there is a cap, is it high or low?

  8. Railway Rifle says:

    I bet those ‘90s mixtapes just went on and on.

  9. GepardenK says:

    As pointed out DUSK feels impressively 90s in a very genuine way. I think the only thing missing from DUSK compared to it’s 90’s counterparts is unreasonable difficulty spikes and annoying/unfair monsters. This is what makes it feel so “comfortable” as you put it – like with most modern games it feels very much paced with the well being of the player in mind, so you don’t get that thrilling underdog feeling of fighting against a unfair system that is rigged against you.

    Don’t get wrong, epsiode 2 in particular can be fairly challenging on higher difficulties. But it’s still challenging in a very fair and non-threatening way.

    • anon459 says:

      That’s the feeling I got from watching videos. It’s like there’s never a big moment where you think “What the hell is this now, Game!? How dare you; I’ll show you to do this to me you son of a bitch let’s go!”

      But I mean, I don’t *always* want to get all worked up like that but I still love the movement-feel of 90’s shooters so I’m sure it’s still very nice. And multiplayer is in many ways an even better environment for that high-adrenaline feeling, and Dusk has that so, hey!

  10. Eukatheude says:

    ALL GAMES EVER should be 90’s style shooters.

  11. AmazingPotato says:

    *The Longpigs feature heavily

    Is it this, for an hour?

    I loved this when it came out – college years, mmmm.

    Actually, now I’d really like to see an FPS soundtracked by 90s indie.

  12. Scare Tactics says:

    There is another game with the same name that looked like (was a blatant copy of) I Am Legend. link to youtube.com

    Smells like vaporware though