There’s no better leverage in game development than repurposing timeless mechanics, especially those that have been arbitrarily partitioned to the past. Amidst the cacophony of free-to-play battle royales and loot shooters that lack loot, there is a always a cult of angry players frothing at the mouth for simpler times, preferably enhanced with subtle mechanical nuances. Dusk tows a fine line between holding onto its spiritual predecessors tightly (be it Blood or Redneck Rampage) and introducing its own innovations. It reaps the benefits and consequences of both but is largely a compulsively playable time that is freshly retro above all.
At its core, Dusk is as authentically old-school as a Unity engine developed, Windows 7 operating (at minimum) first-person shooter could be. It best resembles Quake in visual clarity, models are wholly three-dimensional but proudly low-polygon, while the general environmental tone is halfway gothic and the other Lovecraftian. Level designs are non-linear and often transform into a spiral of backtracking, only for you to find prior locations entirely transformed. Enemies are deployed profusely for the sake of direct processing into giblets. Secrets are abundant and house resources or cheeky easter eggs just as frequently. Mobility is at an all-time high as you strafe fast and fire unrelentingly.
Dusk starts out pretty formally, the story is pretty sparse excepting your status as a treasure hunter and your placement on a meathook. Initially, levels resemble Redneck Rampage’s arrangement almost too faithfully. I enjoyed new abilities to aim down sights and slide across the map grounded in precisely tuned gunplay, but the highly referential matters were otherwise played entirely straight. Battling Texas Chainsaw also-rans and mindless klansmen happens oddly understatedly, facing its nadir when an immortal Duke Nukem 3D reference is delivered in plain text just for its own sake. Its early moments are carried by immediately intuitive gameplay, as well as a straightforward, but rather generous weapon variety propelling the first half of the game, but there appears to be a bit of crisis of tone (or lack thereof) as theoretically humorous setpieces are delivered so anonymously.
Nonetheless, this mostly falls to the wayside as you get acquainted with the central mechanics. It’s hard to oversell how quickly you move through your surroundings. It’s the only way to account for the deluge of enemies constantly encroaching in on you. It mostly feels great, each difficulty setting puts up a fair fight and the game is more-or-less perfectly optimized. The frame rate is persistently swift enough to make any modification to aim sensitivity noticeable. Even the hunting rifle is imbued with a sense of speed that aids its unapologetic firepower to make it one of the best weapons in the game. The introduction of new weaponry disappointingly drops off about halfway through the title, but most every weapon feels satisfying to weld, and ammo is measured enough to ensure you put your whole arsenal to use.
The relatively common platforming in the game is surprisingly adequate as well, only hitting a small brick wall during power-up fueled wall climbing sequences that make for some surprising level transitions, but strangely clumsy wall jumps as well. The game’s suggestions to save scum in advance of some instant death moments is appreciated as well, though the title’s pretense of accessibility has its drawbacks as well. Boss battles are well-balanced, fun to look at, and reasonably cathartic to take down, so I question why players can just move past them in game. End level boss fights can be entirely skipped with zero consequences besides an incomplete enemy death count, and the unfazed progression to the next level. It’s a nice sentiment, but a questionable one in a game that largely appeals to hardcore players and almost seems to imply an imbalance that isn’t there. My quick impulses lead me to exit a level mid boss battle presuming I would be finding more ammo, instead of leaving the level entirely. This will also likely induce headaches in many speed-running enthusiasts, as the game directly points out its own exploits and shortcuts.
By the time the final boss rears its cthulhuian head, any sort of safety net has disappeared, but it’s also a far more passive battle resting on cinematic glory as much as running and gunning. Otherwise, it is the boss who ties up episode 2 that best defies this exploit, but this is mostly through the tandem presence of the ever aimless button puzzle, a relic of 3D Realms’ design whose presence here doesn’t benefit the game at all. The monotony of stumbling upon the right button pattern to unlock the rest of a level gains only the cheapest sort of tension when a monolithic boss is positioned in front. Luckily, the bosses themselves flourish from their fine-tuned resemblance to early FPS juggernauts and feel increasingly integral to the campaign as it progresses, no matter what opportunities to skip them are present.
Dusk in general fully comes into its own, as it gradually departs from its spiritual ancestors. With the introduction of episode 2 of 3, Dusk starts to develop streaks of subversive design that transcend any reference material. Creatures of surrealist nightmares gradually work their way into the game, most winningly, the elusive Wendigo who manifests in the form of a wholly mutated deer. Creeping up from any direction, they gain an immeasurable advantage against you from the mere fact that they’re invisible. The veil is only relinquished once you’ve dealt damage, but their presence is foreshadowed by a vivid sound mix reflecting the direction of their approach, as well as traced tracks of your own blood once they’ve attacked.
The push-and-pull between their evasive tendencies and their weaknesses is slyly genius, making for one of the most exciting enemies I’ve faced in a good while. It’s only natural that the others pale in comparison but it’s nonetheless a solid arrangement top to bottom. The closest thing to an annoyance are the bottom feeding undead rats who often chip away at your health while out of sight, but their damage is so minimal that they mostly serve as close quarters cannon fodder. Unlike weaponry, the introduction of new enemies never really falls off, reserving such colorful characters as the Hound of Torment and the Priestess for the extended satanic fever dream that serves as the final episode. Levels occasionally rest on the strength of enemy encounters to account for a lapse in structural ambition, but the former still ensures that not a single level loses momentum entirely.
For the most part though, level design surprises more often than not as Dusk lets its fleeting Escherian qualities prevail. There’s long been a sort of circular logic present in the economical design of Hexen and the original era of Doom. The ability for the start of a level to again serve as the end, albeit entirely changed or offering access to new doorways as keycards amass. Dusk retains this quality and folds it over itself, most so in the fittingly titled Escher Labs that also allows ambiguous hallways to lead to Lewis Carroll landscapes as sketched by John Romero. The unrelenting speed of your movement directly plays into the bouts of loopy energy that accompany the strongest levels in the game.
The protagonist and developer’s sanities alike seem to unravel as the game progresses, freeing the final episode of the game to defy reality entirely, in turn laying host to a respectable handful of unforgettable moments. By the time the title ends, you’ll have lost fate in even gravity’s pull, a late stage highlight being a trip to your home neighborhood only fulfilled by your ability to change the direction of gravity and bounce every which way accordingly. There’s a marginal dissonance between some of the outlandish presentation and the deceptive simplicity of Dusk’s core mechanics, but its peak moments of intrigue go a long way towards keeping the campaign from stagnating.
Though Dusk’s campaign ends on slightly unsure footing, split between a massive enemy encounter saddled with an environment that mistakes absence for ambience, and the aforementioned final boss battle redeemed through clever player mechanics that nonetheless are measurably easier than preceding battles, the nature of the campaign hardly gives you time to be underwhelmed with how much carnage it tosses at you.
Multiplayer is largely more by the book, but preserves the chaos inherent to Quake’s preceding legacy and is an ideal vessel for Dusk’s effortlessly nimble mechanics. It also provides a bit of a role reversal in showing the strengths of its mechanics. Levels are a bit standard, removed from scripted setpieces or an abundance of enemy AI, but your weapon selection becomes more indispensable than ever before, with pickups largely randomized and each weapon resting on its own strategy while universally packing a punch.
Though its commendable risks within its genre don’t always payoff, Dusk prospers from firmly established joy that is as direct as a shotgun slug, rooted in its rock solid mechanics. It may at times feel like someone’s Quake fan project transported to the modern day, but it mostly reaps benefits from its influencers and forces its way out of the shadows through some audacious decisions that make it not quite like any other FPS revival project out there.
Blessed with the brilliance and blemishes of its predecessors, Dusk nonetheless does a respectable job revitalizing retro FPS gameplay with more revelations than setbacks.
Enjoys paying less than 20 dollars for a game, especially when it is one people have forgotten about. Wants to be a character in the next Jet Set Radio and hopes you enjoy the site. Has a pet rabbit he nurtures and takes photos of. Still pushing for a Stuntman Ignition remaster 11 years later. Still hasn’t played Fortnite.