It may sound like a bit of a cliché, but sometimes the best way to move forward is to take a step back - and nowhere is this point more demonstrably clear than in the recently released indie shooter DUSK. DUSK is an adrenaline fueled blast to the past developed by David Szymanski and published by New Blood Interactive. The game borrows heavily from the twitch shooters of yore in terms of play style with an emphasis on fast, aggressive gameplay, while the lack of a regenerating health bar means players must always be on the move searching for pick-ups if they want to stay alive. The art direction of the game is very reminiscent of the low-rez, polygonal graphics found in titles like Quake and other 90’s era shooters: a fact that developer David Szymanski took great pride in. During the development of the game, Szymanski often ran into issues while using the Unity engine as it kept forcing unwanted graphical improvements. He comments, “The biggest challenge is just convincing Unity to stop doing things that make the game look better.”
The game also has some tongue-in-cheek humor and references to other games/films, but not so much that it starts to parody itself. Every time you see something that makes you chuckle, something else happens that scares the hell out of you. All of this is emblematic of the passion and love that Szymanski has for the genre, further shown in this interview where he explains how his love for the retro-FPS blossomed from not having access to any high-end gaming hardware during his teens. Thus, the only games he could play were older titles like Doom and Half-Life, all of which greatly inspired his development of DUSK.
The story of DUSK is about as minimalist as you can get and serves as more of a backdrop to the action rather than the main focus. Simply put, you are a treasure hunter (known affectionately as DuskDude) exploring the rural town of Dusk, Pennsylvania until you are captured by the possessed inhabitants. The rest of the game sees you fighting your way through the deranged townsfolk, a military quarantine surrounding the area, and finally entering the otherworldly plane from which the demonic incursion originated. The parallels to DOOM are easy to spot here. The bleak and often terrifying visuals are contrasted by the pulse-pounding heavy metal soundtrack accompanying the player-character’s merciless rampage. It may not be particularly original, but it certainly is refreshing in a sea of uninspired single player FPS campaigns.
Perhaps the most refreshing thing about DUSK is a return to the classic map designs from the Golden Age of shooters. The levels are open areas designed to be played in a mostly non-linear fashion and packed full of secrets warranting exploration and even adding a degree of replayability for completionists. Secrets can be anything ranging from extra health to power-ups, which enable you to slaughter enemies on an even grander scale; it's always worth taking some extra time to look around for them. You even get that sweet hit of nostalgia at the end of every level when you see the summary screen detailing the number of enemies killed and secrets found.
As always, variety is paramount when dealing with shooters of this nature; it doesn’t take long before blowing away chainsaw wielding cultists with a shotgun in the middle of the same cornfield starts to get boring. Thankfully, DUSK does not disappoint in this regard either. The game is split into three chapters, all with wildly different visual aesthetics and approaches to playing them. The first is primarily rural villages with open areas broken up by cornfields and farmhouses that add an element of close quarters combat to the mix. The next chapter is almost entirely different, being comprised mostly of an industrial wasteland and laboratories. A larger percentage of this area is comprised of labyrinthine hallways, with the open portions relying more on a sense of verticality with numerous vantage points to be exploited by enemies or yourself. The enemies also change greatly overtime. The possessed farmers are gradually replaced by soldiers while the frequency of the more monstrous enemy types begins to increase the closer you get to the final chapter. It’s nice to have an FPS that genuinely keeps you on your toes and leaves you wondering what the next level will have in store for you.
In terms of complaints I only have a few, one of which is the lack of a map or any sort of navigational tool to speak of. I understand that one of the challenges of these types of games is learning to memorize the layout of the level, although I can still think of more than a few retro-style shooters which still used maps. Some of the more maze-like areas can be a little difficult to navigate and it really cuts into the frenetic pace of the action as you try to get your bearings. And while it’s not necessarily a complaint, the multiplayer isn’t really anything to write home about. Not that it’s bad - it’s actually quite serviceable - but that’s about it. It gets the job done but nothing really stood out to me compared to other twitch shooters. It may have also had something to do with the fact that servers were woefully underpopulated at the time of this review. Regardless, I’m still glad that it’s there but I probably won’t be spending much time playing it.
Overall, I had a spectacular time with DUSK. The game faithfully captures the spirit of what made those games from the Golden Age of shooters classics in the first place. I’ve always been a fan and a proponent of the single player FPS, but even I realize the genre is in dire need of rejuvenation. Every so often a gem sneaks through the cracks like DOOM (2016) and Titanfall 2, but for the most part it’s become formulaic and uninspired. Maybe the indie scene is where the future of these games belongs, somewhere that people can remember that a flashy coat of paint and neat gimmicks are no match for simple, solid gameplay and a robust FPS sandbox to play and experiment with.