Pilot drones through derelict spaceships in the tense Duskers


Playing Duskers is a bit like playing chess, except you don't know how big the board is or how its shaped, and you don't know how many pieces your enemy has, or where those pieces are, or what those pieces can do. Okay, maybe that's not much like chess at all, but Duskers does require strategy, forethought, and patience, and you can quickly find yourself it a dire situation with very little chance of escape. The thing is, that one little chance can be all you need.

Coming to Early Access tomorrow, August 20, Duskers takes place in a procedurally generated galaxy filled with the hulks of derelict spaceships. Your own ship only has enough fuel for a few days travel, so you must jump from ship to ship, docking with airlocks and scavenging for resources to avoid being marooned. Your only tools are three drones, which you remotely pilot into the ship, controlling them one at a time. Each drone has three slots to fit with various modules, such as motion detectors, power generators, shields, stealth fields, and so on. As you explore you gather fuel, scrap metal, and new modules, and you can even find other drones to tow back to your ship and put into service. While you generate a map of the ships as you explore, you can really only see what your drones can see and only hear what they hear. And, lurking somewhere in the darkened chambers of these mysterious ships are hostile entities, from biological lifeforms to automated defense systems.


Sensors can sometimes tell you when an enemy is in a nearby room. Sometimes.

On my current mission, a brief lack of caution has landed me in hot water. I've got four drones working at the moment, since I found one on another ship and added it to my crew. Unfortunately, three of my drones are suddenly swarmed by a malignant alien lifeform that disables them in a matter of seconds. I'd powered up and interfaced with the ship's defense system, and was notified that the defenses had killed a bunch of enemies in other rooms, but I somehow missed one. Then I opened a door and whatever I'd missed came swarming all over my loyal bots. That's all it takes. A moment of carelessness, and suddenly three of my pawns are completely out of commission.

My fourth drone, meanwhile, is sealed in a different chamber. It's good that he's sealed in, because the enemy can't get him. It's bad because the drone can't get out, either: its only ability is to gather resources, so it can't power up doors to open or close them. My generator drone is dead, which means my gatherer is essentially a vacuum cleaner stuck in a locked closet. It feels like this is game over, but I'm not out of moves quite yet.

In Duskers, you control your drones one at a time by steering them around using the arrow keys, as well as typing commands into a prompt. Commands can be simple like 'generate' which tells a drone to power a node that provides electricity to the derelict ship. You can also chain commands together. For instance, 'navigate 3 r15;gather 3 all' will dispatch drone 3 to room 15 and gather all the resources there. These manually entered commands give the game a enjoyable lo-fi feel, though when you're suddenly faced with enemies, such as when my three drones were swarmed, there's often not enough time to type anything coherent.


Enemies move swiftly and can disable or destroy your drones within seconds.

Thanks to a prior scavenging mission, my ship, which is docked at an airlock, can remote power part of the derelict ship. That means I can open the door to let my drone out of his closet. That also means the alien could get in, so I need to take care of it first. I could open another airlock and suck the monster into space, but since it's in the same room with my disabled drones it would suck them out as well, and if I don't rescue them I won't survive much longer anyway. So, I pilot my ship to dock with the second airlock, and open the door. Eventually, my sensors tell me the alien has boarded my ship. This isn't a great situation—this gross alien thing is slithering around in my hold, which is where I need to get my drones—but at least I know where the thing is. I close the airlock: now the alien is trapped in my ship.

I open the closet door and drive my vacuum cleaner to the other disabled drones. Using the 'swap' command I take the towing module from the disabled drone and stick it in my vacuum cleaner. Now it's a vacuum cleaner that can tow other drones. I can pull my disabled drones back into my ship, but first I need to ditch my unwanted passenger.

I pilot my ship over to another airlock, one that opens into an empty room with closed doors. I open the airlock until the alien scuttles out, then fly back to the original airlock. Then, just for kicks, I power and open the airlock I just left. It's a bit pointless: the alien was safely contained in the room, but I just want it to die, you know? As the open airlock sucks the alien into space, I tow the rest of the disabled drones into my ship, one by one, and leave. Not a great mission: I didn't gather any fuel, but at least my drone crew was collected safely.


Each drone has three slots for abilities, and these can be swapped when they're near each other.

This being Early Access, Duskers has a few issues. I couldn't get explosive traps to detonate, which led to the loss of several drones in one game. You're supposed to be able to pick up certain items you drop, like sensors and probes, though that sometimes doesn't work either. And, like many roguelikes, success is often determined on your starting roll. You begin with different drone modules every time, and some are far more useful than others. Sometimes the first few ships you visit are either decidedly difficult or lacking in resources, which can make your chances of survival extremely low.

Despite those issues I'm still enjoying Duskers quite a lot: it's a tense and spooky game you have to progress through slowly, carefully, and with a great amount of forethought. Disaster can come quickly and with little warning, but there's so much room to think creatively that even the most dire of circumstances are often salvageable.


Some ships are huge and can take hours to completely explore.


The first PC game Chris owned was Choplifter in 1982, and since then our staff writer has played at least three other games. He has a love/hate relationship with Early Access survival games and an odd fascination with the lives of NPCs.
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