There was a time when first-person shooters were known as “Doom clones”—a reference to the extremely popular 1993 game that popularized and shaped an entire genre of games, and many others that followed—and there were a ton. Since the 90s, through the 00’s and even today, it’s hard to not think about video games without thinking of the myriad of shooters—Call of Duty, Battlefield, Fortnite, etc. DUSK is an homage to a time before modern shooters, back when you could still find the utterances of “Doom clone,” and before iron sights and cover mechanics were a thing, with speed and twitch reflexes winning the day. DUSK doesn’t just emulate the retro style, it feels like it could easily exist in that era right alongside Quake.
In DUSK you play as an unnamed protagonist fighting for his life. In a setting ripped straight from a horror movie, you must fight off robed cultists and chainsaw wielding madmen wearing burlap sacks on their heads. Despite DUSK’s chunky, polygonal style, the horror is translated well. Even though it does feel a little silly, it isn’t entirely ineffective. Though given a stated purpose at the beginning of your journey, your goal is to fight to the heart of the evil and find out what is driving it.
DUSK is a dark game, in setting, tone, and visuals. While it might have set off a congressional hearing in the 90’s, these graphics would look cartoonishly silly to most today. Still, it tries as hard as it can for that Gen X, 90’s style edginess that was such a popular look for games of that day. DUSK pulls it off effortlessly, while even managing to throw in some Duke Nukem 3D style humor here and there.
DUSK is fast: it eschews cover mechanics for speed. In this way, it emulates a style that existed before cover mechanics—where circle strafing and fast aiming are the only ways to survive. Sometimes, it’s how you just barely survive, as DUSK throws wave after wave of enemies at you. Often, this is done in clever ways—after you find a power-up, or as sort of another trap—not just a mindless wave of enemies.
The enemies themselves, while also blocky polygons, actually manage to be interesting. They don’t just beeline towards you; instead, different enemies act differently. Melee enemies will try to flank you, or outright run towards you. Flying enemies will get better vantage points to shoot at you, while ranged enemies on the ground will track you down to get a firing line on you. Enemy projectiles are not instant, so even the bullets can be dodged (with enough space) making every interaction with enemies feel challenging, but never unfair. If you take damage, you definitely know it, and often know where it is coming from. You don’t regenerate health, either. Instead, you rely on pickups for both health and armor (called morale in DUSK) so you always have to be on the lookout for not only ammo to power your killing, but health to keep those bullets flying.
My biggest gripe, however, is the lack of notification when you are low on health. The screen does turn slightly red around the corners, but if you are absorbed in a battle you may not know you are close to death unless you are dead. And, in keeping with this old school style, any progress you made since your last save is lost. Save points are NOT automatic, so be sure to hit “quicksave” as often as you can, and manually save if you’re taking any risks. I managed to forget this myself, despite having played games during that era, and quickly relearned a few of my old habits.
DUSK throws a few boss encounters at you, but these experiences aren’t that interesting beyond the locations they exist in. Most bosses act like larger enemies, and sometimes are indeed just larger models of enemy types you will encounter later. There could have been some real potential for boss encounters, but instead you just have to fight a few tougher, bullet-sponge enemies. They’re not bad encounters, just not very interesting, either.
The weapons in DUSK are exactly what you would expect from a first-person shooter of that era. You have your token melee weapon, pistols, shotguns, etc. The weapons, while fun, don’t feel like they have much oomph to them. But they get the job done, and there is enough variety to usefulness for each weapon that you’ll find yourself using each pretty regularly—depending on the situation.
There are also a multitude of pick-ups and power-ups to help cut down the hordes of enemies. Pick-ups allow you to fire faster, survive lava, or even wall climb. There is even a power-up that mimics the “enemies move when you move” gameplay style of Superhot. As fun as that power-up is, though, I found it more annoying than useful. There are also plenty of secrets to find, with some levels having many such secrets to uncover.
There are three episodes total to play through, with each episode consisting of about nine levels each. You’ll be fighting through various locations, like farmsteads, secret laboratories, military bases, and ancient ruins on your journey to stop the source of the evil.
The level designs in DUSK range from the mundane to the inspired. Some levels are completely forgettable, and others use ideas that I have never even seen before in a first person shooter—old, or new. I don’t want to get into too many specifics, lest I spoil some neat moments, but rarely did I find myself bored with DUSK’s levels. Sometimes it may be a little hard to figure out where to go next (there are no waypoints) but each level is small enough to be run through in about five minutes—shorter if you know where to look. There are plenty of shortcuts and other interesting areas that make DUSK seem perfect for speedrunning.
In classic first-person shooter style, most of the time the only thing blocking you from progression through each level is locked doors. Red, yellow, and blue keys are usually scattered about, and finding them is the only to progress. Just hunting for keys isn’t fun, so DUSK likes to throw surprises out to make your trek back to locked doors either more hazardous—or in some cases, outright trippy.
Even the options in DUSK help maintain an “authentic” retro experience. You can even change the graphic levels to make it look more authentically retro. I was even able to set it up to look exactly like Quake did on my crappy Pentium 90 that was barely able to run it. Despite these graphic filters, I think DUSK looks great with its low polygon aesthetic.
The soundtrack and sounds are all spot-on, too. The soundtrack is appropriately heavy for most of the game, and gets your blood pumping appropriately for the amount of polygonal chunkiness you’re about to unleash. The sounds themselves are also “authentic,” with the perfect balance to make them sound like they were recorded as .WAV files back in the 90s.
DUSK fully embraces its retro nature. As with graphics and gameplay, even the multiplayer has a retro feel. With its multiplayer component an obvious homage to Quakeworld, DUSKWORLD is your online portal and your window to fragging other players. Now you don’t have to worry about your mom picking up the phone and killing your internet connection. Despite that, it doesn’t seem like many people are regularly playing DUSK’s multiplayer. I jumped into a match, but with only two other players on that particular server (the most populated I could find) I don’t think there was enough time make an accurate assessment of its capabilities. It looks like a hell of a lot of fun, though!
DUSK succeeds where a lot of similar titles have failed. Games like Strafe tried SO HARD to give us that classic 90’s shooter feel, but managed to only get the pixelated look with barely any of the flavor or feel. DUSK feels like a modern version of classic, deserving to sit right alongside Duke 3D or Quake. With little modern quality of life improvements, some gamers may find DUSK a little unpalatable, but it perfectly does what it sets out to: recreate the 90’s shooter look and feel.
This article was originally published on 12/18/2018 at this location.