Hard Driveby: DuskThe Dark Herald
I can’t believe it took me this long to get around to playing this one. I suppose I was put off by the graphics. Considering how much I sneer at game reviewers for basing their reviews on the basis of how pretty the game looks, I will willingly take the capital L on this one.
I done screwed up.
I boned it in the ear for the lousiest of reasons.
Also, I was totally wrong about the art design. The low polygon artwork is one of the major pluses for this game. I’ll get back to that.
Dusk is David Szymanski’s loving tribute to greatest era in gaming, the 90s Build Engine games.
Dark Herald: Yes, I’m going to start going on about how great Build Engine games were again.
Darklings: Yeah, we figured.
Don’t get me wrong, I played Doom for hours on end. Doom II same notation. I played Heretic and Hexan but that said the limitations of the Doom engine were pretty obvious. It was platform that was basically in diapers. John Carmack went on from there to create the Quake engine, the first real 3d engine. However, a fundamental problem became apparent when Quake II came out, the technology so in the driver’s seat there wasn’t much of a story left to engage the players imagination. When Romero left id it was the Generation X version of the Beatles breaking up.
I don’t know what it was about Ken Silverman’s brilliant, 2.5d, slightly janky game engine that seemed to draw 90s pop culture to it like a magnet but it unquestionably did. All of the great Build games, Duke Nukem 3D, Blood, Shadow Warrior had classic 80/90s B-movie tropes and cliches peppered throughout that every Gen-Xer instantly recognized. Evil Dead II, Predator, They Live, Big Trouble in Little China were all lovingly paid tribute to in these games. In the late 90s the Build platform reigned supreme.
Then Half-life and Unreal killed it overnight.
By the mid-2000s the entire FPS genre seemed to be on life support thanks to console cover shooters. But then around 2015 Doom and the new Shadow Warrior revived FPS but there was something missing for the first generation gamer. There was nothing you could put your finger on exactly, but it just wasn’t the same. I like every other Gen-Xer, shrugged and decided it was just life moving on.
However, a 2019 release called Dusk was still getting a lot of positive buzz in 2023. I had in fact picked up as part of a package deal on Steam but hadn’t bothered to load it. However, I recently decided to give it a try when I noticed that retro-FPS was suddenly a thing.
When it was done downloading, I hit Play and was more transported than Prince Harry thinking about his mother’s mouth when he put cold cream on his junk.
This was the loading screen:
I was already in love and the game hadn’t started yet. I was home.
This is a first person shooter, meaning you are the protagonist, so you are Dusk Dude a voiceless hero in the same mold as Doom Guy. You’ve been captured by a cult and in the town of Dusk and put on meat hooks. That just gets you mad. You break free and are attacked by extras from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. These are called Leathernecks and as a Marine, I object but these are the first enemy you run into.
Next are the Mages who throw glowing shit at you.
And then come the zombie goats called, Black Phillips.
There are three chapters in this game and they function quite effectively as a three-act play. Introduction, rising tension, and finally climax. The first act feels like a Stephen King story like Salem’s Lot or Children of the Corn. The low polygon artwork that I had stupidly written off worked brilliantly in creating a dark and cursed world forever locked in eternal evening twilight in late autumn. The bare trees are sharp and cold, the sky is the right shade of dusky, cinnamon red that creates an atmosphere of malaise. It’s also a rather confined space. It feels like you are being herded for the most part and it’s pretty easy to find the Secrets (at first) and you have to find the Secrets. You absolutely, positively need the advanced weapons you’ll find.
The nice part of the weapons is that you never run into the Doom problem of having a weapon you never use again in the higher levels. You start with twin sickles, then two-gun mojo pistols, followed by two gun mojo shotguns, next comes the super shotgun which is great by the way, it’s up there with Doom II’s. The Machine gun… well it does what it’s supposed to, it’s fine. Then comes the crossbow which can fire through literally anything and can take out a whole row of enemies, it also has a hell of a kick for some reason, enough to get you off the ground. Sniper Rifle seems to have the same power as the SSG but at a distance (conserve the sniper ammo, you never get much of it). The mortar is really a grenade launcher, the grenades have a lot of damage but they are slow, high-trajectory, and bounce around a lot. Last is the Riveter, the rivets are also explosive but they are fast, flat-trajectory. Save the Rivets for your problem children. There is no BFG, but there is the Soap Bar. Each level has one Soap Bar and it can one-shot anything to include the level boss. That said, it manages to not break the game, and if you are playing at one of the higher difficulties the Soap becomes a dire necessity.
The Second Chapter takes you to a military-industrial laboratory. Giving you the impression that what’s going on in the town of Dusk is just a military experiment that got out of hand or something. Up until now the game has been very confined but now the levels really open up thus expanding your perception of Dusk’s world. Yet, there is an atmosphere of dread that carries over from the first chapter. The thing is, it feels like there might be a scientific explanation for everything that is going on. But then you reach the Escher Labs you realize, that no, oh no, there is no canny explanation for what is going on. You are fighting something supernatural.
The first enemies introduced aren’t that exceptional, just a bit tougher than what you faced in the first chapter. Welders are tanky but you don’t have to waste rivets or sniper bullets on them. Soldiers are hit scanners and scientists are melee.
Fork Maidens, you met as a boss in chapter one, they’re tough but you know what to expect.
Cowgirls on the other hand are a nightmare and have to be riveted or sniped. They are Dusk’s tribute to the Quake’s Iron Maiden.
The Wendigos are really bad news, they are invisible until you damage one. You get an alert sound they push visible objects out of the way but they are tough and scary.
When the third chapter begins, you know that whatever Jakob is, he is the servant of some kind of Cosmic horror beyond imagining. You are battling through demonic cities and defiled temples on planes of existence that are not of this Earth. The new enemies are creatures of the supernatural. Priestess are just a melee enemy with a predictable windup, they are no problem… Unless there is more than one of them.
The Bone Monks (must resist off-color joke) fly and do a ton of damage to you.
The Cart Dogs are just wrong. They are fundamentally and thoroughly wrong. Of all the enemies in this game, the Cart Dogs bothered me the most.
The Horror, its name is what it is. The first time I ran into one, my wife had to look in on me because, I’d yelled, “WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT?” It’s real power comes from your own imagination. From the moment you hear it’s croaking gasps to when it finally attacks your brain is your own worst enemy. It’s filling in too many blanks that should never be filled in.
Last of the enemies is the Bone Ball, it is tanky as hell and will have to be riveted but it’s a big target and moves slowly. It’s not a problem.
In the third chapter, you finally get just a hint of Dusk Dude’s existence as a person. You visit a broken nightmare version of his home. Look at a picture of him and his wife and you see the words, “It hurts to remember.” It makes Dusk Dude a person. After this Dusk reaches its expected crescendo. You battle all of the creatures you have been defeated, plus some bosses with a bigger health pool and much higher rate of fire. Finally, you must fight Jakob, you don’t actually defeat him. Get him low enough and his acolytes appear snarling, “Unworthy,” and destroy him for you. A doorway opens and you start climbing your way back to the surface world.
It seems pretty typical for this kind of game. It’s expected and there is no reason at all to feel disappointed. Although, you might… Just might be left with a hankering for a little bit more.
And you get it. Nyarlothetep, the Lovecraftian horror-god that Jakob was enslaved to battles you. And extra mega points to Dusk here because it is voiced by the voice of Caleb from Blood himself, the legendary Stephen Weyte.
Dusk never loses sight of what it’s trying to be. Sure it’s a horror game but it always keeps just a bit of 1990s Build engine playfulness. On one level, I defeated a boss and opened an Exit door, and was promptly attacked by two more bosses. Okay, fine, that kind of thing happens in this kind of game. Kill the overpowered Fork Maidens, and I think okay, that’s it, I’m down to three health points and I hope I can find some health at the start of the next level. Open the door marked exit and I am killed by three rats. “YOU DICK!!!” But I was laughing when I yelled it.
The music by Andrew Hulshult was a perfect compliment. The soundtrack is honestly worth getting all by itself.
This game was both a labor of love and work of genius. Dusk is the best Build engine game of all time, even if it was made on Unity.
The Dark Herald Recommends with Enthusiasm (5/5)