Review: Dusk

There are a lot of nice ways to wake up. Warm and in bed with a cat by your feet and sun streaming in the window, maybe with the smell of bacon wandering up the stairs, and you’ve got a good day ahead. Wake up with meat hooks stabbing through your shoulder-flesh while burlap-hooded farmhands advance with revving chainsaws and odds are good things will turn very ugly, very quickly. If Dusk opened with a smell it wouldn’t be bacon, but rather rotten sawdust, motor oil and the oddly-jagged scent of pixelated blood.

There was a time when the first-person shooter was not only fast, loud and bloody, but also dumb as a box of rocks in all the best ways. Dusk is a complete throwback to that style, giving you a variety of guns, a pile of baddies waiting in a maze of interconnected passages and frequent restocks on enemies when the initial supply runs out.  The player movement speed is set to Hyper mode except for the rare moments you need the walk button, perfect for high-speed circle strafing when fighting in an open area.  Secrets are everywhere, holding everything from weapons found several levels earlier than you’d otherwise be given them in the trickier areas to a useful health-up for the more obvious ones.  The biggest thing Dusk gets right, though, is knowing that the most important character in the game is the level map.

The farming town of Dusk has been overrun by cultists who are disturbingly good at choosing a terrible eldritch creature to worship and its influence is only getting stronger as the sun sets. Thankfully Evil is just as susceptible to a shotgun blast to the face as Good, so while the town may be lost, a gib-infused bloodbath is just the thing to stop the madness from spreading any further.  There’s not a lot of story in Dusk, although the levels frequently flow logically one to the next and the set pieces get bigger and stranger as you go.  The overall trip is separated into three ten-level chapters, starting in the rural outskirts before heading into town and then the industrial areas, but once you get to Escher Labs, the weirdness takes over and modern human architecture gets left almost completely behind.

It all starts normally enough, or at least “normal” by gaming standards.  You wake up with a trio of hooded freaks coming at you and quickly dispatch them with a pair of scythes, but a few things in that first room instantly stand out while others are there waiting to be discovered.  First off, Dusk is designed to look like it’s from the Quake era, with low-poly enemies and low-res textures, plus a little bit of intentional jagginess to its edges.  It’s an art style that works well, clear and readable even when the lighting gets dim or otherworldly.  Next up is the speed of movement, which is extra-super fast but also perfectly controllable once you’ve played a little.  The first encounter is in an open room with space to maneuver, but there’s a bit of clutter in the form of barrels and rocks as well.  They move relatively easily when you plow into them, so don’t get in the way too badly, but they’re more than just background decoration.  The farmhands take a good amount of sickle-slicing to go down but a thrown barrel or rock drops them in a single hit.  Guns are nice and ammo is plentiful but there are other ways to take out enemies aside from shooting them in the face, and that includes catching them in the crossfire of another monster.  It was always satisfying in Doom to see the demons tear into each other and the creatures of Dusk are no less aggressive.

The final lesson of the first room in Dusk is to always keep an eye open for secrets.  You can rush through and play the game as a pure-action FPS, but that would miss the best part, which is the level design.  Two of the barrels in the first section are in front of a small alcove hiding a pistol, although it’s hard to see if you don’t follow the on-screen instructions to use the flashlight.  Once you’ve got a little light you can also see there’s a crack in a far wall and elsewhere in the room is a gas can which, of course, explodes on impact when thrown.  Secrets could be anywhere accessed in any number of ways, and that includes false walls, hidden switches, rocket jumping or just peeking behind a bit of scenery.  The most important thing about the secrets, though, is that the levels that house them are so fun to explore that you’ll want to search them out.

Every one of Dusk’s thirty-plus levels is something different, frequently with multiple scenery changes between start and finish.  One of the earlier levels, for example, starts off in a series of stone canyons with hooded monks throwing fireballs from the paths running up its sides.  After clearing out the starting area there’s a tunnel to a cliff running above a pit, more monks wandering around up top while shotgun-scarecrows patrol the top of a building in the pit and zombie-oxen are waiting below.  Take care of everyone and snag a few secrets plus the all-important red key card and then it’s back to the canyons and up a short path to a locked door, which takes you inside a small industrial building.  Once that’s cleared out it’s back to the structure in the pit, a fast crawl through pitch-black ducts with only a flashlight to shine a tiny bit of light ahead and then back to the industrial building and through to the misty wooded area beyond.  The level ends with a large firefight at a military outpost, and whether you attack it head-on or decide to be clever about it is completely your call.  On the one hand you’ll have a nice supply of rockets and grenades by then, but on the other it’s awfully fun to run back and forth in front of the opening and stir up the enemies who see you so they try to shoot through the ones who don’t.  Dusk is by no means a game of subtlety and tactics but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a little fun screwing with its AI.

It doesn’t settle down after that, with each new level being a change of pace from the previous one. The town level is a great place to explore but you won’t be going back there and the same holds true for the industrial grinder’s blood-soaked pits, the gravity-inverting laboratory, the power plant that’s basically a huge open box with towers that have catwalks running between them and a broken floor dropping down to a pit of lava or any of the mystical realms from the latter part of the game.  Not only is the next level guaranteed to be a completely different style from the previous one, but you can practically guarantee the place you start in will be nothing like where you end up.  The only unifying feature is that the place will be covered in the remains of soldiers, cultists and other weird abominations who made the poor life choice of standing between your arsenal and the level’s exit.

Closing Comments:

Dusk is easily one of the best pure-action FPSes to come along in years, mixing gunplay and exploration in equal measure.  The level design is the highlight but there are plenty of extras to keep you playing, including four optional goals per level, endless levels where waves of creatures spawn one after the other and even deathmatch multiplayer.  One of the nice features of the goals is you can choose an individual level to play, which shows off the care put into weapon placement.  Even if you pass on maxing out the loadout you can start with nothing but the scythes and still have a fair challenge while trying to earn the Completionist badge for killing all enemies and finding all secrets.  While Dusk is a throwback to an older type of game, it’s excellent in its own right, loaded with content and an absolute blast to tear through from start to finish.