What is it? 1990s-inspired fast-paced FPS with horror themes.
Reviewed on: Windows 10, i5 4690k, 16GB RAM, Nvidia GTX 970
Release date: Out now
Publisher: New Blood Interactive
Developer: David Szymanski
Link: Official site (opens in new tab)
I was just about hip-deep in corpses and spent shotguns shells when I read the writing on the wall. Scrawled in blood, a message: don't go in the ruins. I heard a raspy noise behind me. It wasn't quite an animal sound, but it wasn't human, either. I turned and found something much worse than a bad guy. A closed door marked Ruins Access. The raspy breathing came again from just behind it. I felt an actual chill run down my back.
Dusk is an homage to late-'90s corridor shooters like Doom, Quake, and Half-Life. It's also a love letter to weird cultist horror genre films like The Hills Have Eyes and Deliverance. More importantly, it's great. Dusk is fucking great.
Run to the hills
At the beginning of Dusk, I'm meathooked (at least the third-worst way to wake up) and trapped in a hostile world mostly unarmed. Like the '90s shooters it draws inspiration from, the first tool Dusk gives players is speed. This is a game where pressing the forward button zips me along the ground, and, charmingly, bunny hopping adds momentum just like it used to in ye olden days. With a heavy W-finger and a lot of jumping, exploring the creepy farmhouses and industrial buildings of Dusk's first chapter felt like touring a retro videogame art museum on a motorcycle.
It's not speed for speed's sake; I'm moving fast because it's the only way to survive. There are a lot of different enemies in Dusk, from possessed scarecrows to hooded Klansmen throwing dark magic, but almost all of them charge straight ahead with melee attacks or shoot swarms of projectiles at me. The variety of enemies, some big, some small, shooting bullets that move at different speeds, makes every fight a constantly changing obstacle course. The only way to navigate a crowded field of shooty monsters and bullets is to move, to run circles around the bad guys, kite them into big groups or toward explosive barrels, and shoot as fast as I can.
Speed is the first, but it's not the only tool. Starting with a pair of sharp sickles and moving up through the traditional FPS loadout closet, I shot demons and bad guys with pistols, lever-action rifles, double-barreled super shotguns, assault rifles, sniper rifles, and grenade launchers. The most unexpected weapon I've found so far is the Riveter, a bulky steel box that launches hot construction-grade welding rivets that, for some reason, explode spectacularly. I'm not sure why a rivet driver might act this way, but it is extremely fun.
The blocky graphics in Dusk are its most obvious throwback reference to the era of games it idolizes, but damn if they don't look great anyway. The sharp polygons of enemy bodies might be two decades out of date, but modern lighting and particle effects did a lot to make me feel interested in exploring and blowing up the world around me. The limited polygons and low-res textures have a jagged, unreal quality that makes corn mazes look creepy and country churches look properly cursed by evil magics.
The single-player portion of Dusk is broken into three campaigns. Starting from that first moment in that weirdo's murder-dungeon, I fought my way through farms, industrial zones, and apartment buildings until I had completely wiped out the cultist and/or demon population of Dusk, Pennsylvania.
I had honestly expected Dusk to be a more straightforward recreation of '90s shooters, including a generic or non-existent story. Instead, the biggest surprise for me was discovering a genuinely interesting, gripping little horror story on offer.
Seek and destroy
This is where Dusk became more than a parody or homage to a once-ubiquitous genre and started kicking ass on its own terms. The bare, pixelated corridors of yore have been replaced by low-poly but recognizable and memorable level and environment designs. I only ever discovered hallways in classic Doom, but in Dusk I fought bad guys in bars, book shops, bedrooms, labs, hay lofts, gas stations, and convenience stores.
Dusk insists on using the classic trope of locked doors and colored keycards. Modern shooters have mostly left that conceit behind because it makes players do a lot of backtracking through empty levels. Having distinct environments filled with recognizable decorations like furniture goes a long way to keep me from getting lost, though. I could usually just think to myself, oh, the Yellow Door is in the book store and go find my way there quickly enough. Clever changes in geography, like a floor falling in or a hidden door opening, also help mix up paths through levels.
More than that, developer David Szymanski has a talent for environmental storytelling that goes way beyond the tableaus I've discovered in games from much larger studios. Once, while venturing through a pitch black subterranean jail with a flashlight, I got hit from behind. I turned and fired, but there was nothing there. Then, in the cone of my flashlight, I saw blood spatters in the shape of footprints moving toward me, marking the steps of an invisible bad guy.
I started shooting, and a demonic deer-type creature roared out of the darkness and attacked again. I dodged and shot, and finally the deer collapsed at the base of a wall. Immediately above the fresh corpse, I read by my flashlight another message in blood: don't trust your eyes. This moment of discovery, and the sensation that the game was toying with me, was better than any dozen skeletons I've discovered in post-apocalyptic Fallout toilets.
Each level is surprisingly compact, using those color-coded locks to send players running back and forth across relatively small spaces. Still, every area is full of tiny corners and hidden walkways. Sometimes, but not always, pressing a piece of wall opens a hidden door or shooting an air grate blows open a secret passage. Without rushing, the average Dusk level took me about 12 minutes to finish. These bite-size little pieces of mayhem and action made it really easy for me to pick up Dusk and put it down a few minutes later, and the built-in level timers will be great for speedrunners.
I had no issues running Dusk on my GTX 970 at its highest graphics settings, and I saw rock-solid framerates in crowded rooms full of exploding barrels and blood geysers. You would expect a game with a retro look not to struggle on modern hardware, but I was still happy to see Dusk run smoothly even in a firefight's most frantic moments. When I bunny-hopped my way to top speed and tore through a level with a fully-stocked grenade launcher, even minor stuttering or screen-tearing would have been a disaster.
Dusk's soundtrack is also phenomenal. It's got a heavy metal flavor that instantly makes me think of Doom—no surprise that it was written by Andrew Hulshult, the composer behind Brutal Doom and Quake Champions. It really is a stunner, and it's also got a relentless, driving quality that makes me think more of Mad Max: Fury Road than Rip & Tear.
Dusk's multiplayer mode is a more direct throwback to the original Quake, and it wasn't as successful at grabbing my attention. The high-speed bunny-hopping makes aiming at human opponents much more challenging than singleplayer modes, and fans of old-school Quake deathmatches will enjoy searching levels and memorizing spawns for the strongest weapons. Matchmaking was fast and rounds start with very little down time. The guns still feel punchy, and the arenas I explored used a lot of vertical space to bring battles way above and below ground level.
I think I was much less taken with the multiplayer modes because they felt like more direct recreations of '90s classics like Quake. To be clear, the multiplayer is completely fine. But when the singleplayer is this good, a fine multiplayer mode was bit a of a let-down. Multiplayer lacked the careful reinvention, the painstaking spiritual reimagination that the singleplayer mode captured so effectively. Maybe it's not fair to expect Szymanski to capture lightning in a bottle twice, but there it is. If I wanted to play Quake, I'd play Quake—thousands of people do that every summer at QuakeCon.
Weirdly, my dissatisfaction with multiplayer helped me zero in on what I love so much about Dusk's singleplayer. It just isn't enough to remake old games with old graphics. After all, the originals still exist.
Dusk is brilliant because it understands that replaying those old games is frequently kind of a letdown. Half-Life is a classic, but playing it today shows how different parts of it haven't aged well. The graphics are more bare than in my memories, and the animations are more stilted. It was groundbreaking, but it's just not quite as fun as it was when it first blew my mind in 1998. Dusk doesn't recreate what FPS games were like in the '90s just to do it again. Dusk instead captures how those games feel now in my mind, tinted by 20 years of rose-colored memories. It shouldn't be possible, and it's a remarkable achievement.