It seemed like only yesterday (though in reality it was close to six months ago), that I reviewed Warhammer 40,000: Boltgun and proclaimed it to be “one of the best boomer shooters money can buy”. Well now, I can also confidently say that Warhammer: 40,000 Boltgun has some fine and potentially superior company in DUSK, one of the most furious, well-designed, balls-to-the-wall retro shooters that I’ve *ever* had the pleasure of playing – even if it did take the game nearly five(!) years to make its grossly overdue debut on PlayStation hardware.
DUSK PS4 Review
The Finest Retro Shooter I’ve Played For A Long, Long Time
The premise of DUSK is one which somewhat predictably, sets up an acceptable scenario for its sprawling ultra-violence and as such doesn’t disappoint in the slightest. As a wayward individual who appears to be rather capable at murdering stuff in the most violent way possible, DUSK kicks things off in a way that you might not expect. Refreshingly, DUSK begins not as a frantic shooter but more as a traditional survival horror, forcing you to survive with ‘just’ a pair of razor sharp sickles in a dimly lit basement against a trio of chainsaw wielding madmen that look like they could have easily stepped out of Resident Evil 4.
As such, this unexpectedly different introduction sets the tone for what follows with DUSK, specifically a classically designed first-person shooter, that deftly interweaves light elements of survival horror into its tapestry of hyperkinetic ultraviolence. To be clear, DUSK absolutely hews closely to the genre classics of those halcyon days where lightning-fast movement, no reloading and rapid violence are the order of the day, while collecting health and armour (known as ‘Morale’, here) and coloured keys to progress are also central to DUSK’s design as much as anything else. Put simply, if you’re familiar with the likes of Quake, DOOM, Duke Nukem 3D and other such genre luminaries from that time, you’ll know what to expect here – at least to begin with.
And yet even with that knowledge, it’s still easy to be surprised what developer David Szymanski has crafted with DUSK. Certainly, it’s obvious that Szymanski is a tenured student of the retro shooter genre. Not only does DUSK bleed pure 1990s level design from every pixel, with every level generously stuffed with all manner of nightmarish creatures, cultish fiends and other such grotesques begging to be blown apart, but so too is it overflowing with carefully placed secrets that demonstrate a deep appreciation of what makes chasing down a secret area feel so satisfying in the first place.
One of the most surprising things about DUSK’s level design – and certainly this is something that puts its apart from the likes of DOOM and Quake – is that a large chunk of the DUSK’s levels unfold not just in dungeons, sewers and other such subterranean areas, but also in abandoned houses, cornfields, garages, chapels and other such places that one would readily associate with the real world. The upshot of this is that these levels evoke a southern gothic vibe that further ensures that DUSK manages to carve out a style that isn’t wholly comparable to its classical inspirations, nor any of the innumerable genre copycats that have sprung up since. That said, DUSK certainly doesn’t hold back on the more fantastical levels either, with some of the later chapters showcasing a degree of maddened imagination that many more contemporary ‘retro shooters’ seemingly lack.
Szymanski’s love affair with the retro shooter genre goes beyond just creating a bloodthirsty effort filled with shotguns, magical weapons, demonic enemies and so on, not least in the ways that he has seen fit to actually iterate upon it in ways that seem absolutely fitting and yet, take in a number of contemporary design influences to boot. One example of this is in the combat where augmenting its already lightning fast slaughter, DUSK lets players execute slides that don’t just allow you to cover a great deal of distance very quickly, but so too can you also slide cancel(!) too, enabling you to cut your slide short if it seems like the manoeuvre might land you in more danger, rather than allowing you to avoid it. Notably, there is also a button for ‘flipping’ your weapon resulting in a neat little, well, flip of your weapon. I’m not quite sure why it’s there, but it certainly would have felt badass in 1995 and so clearly it makes sense to have it present in DUSK.
There’s more to DUSK than just how it seeks to build upon the combat that is arguably at the core of the retro shooter experience too and a big part of this plays into the survival horror elements that I touched on close to the beginning of this review. Though you have a button which allows you to interact with elements in the environment, similar in function to how it might perform in a game like DOOM or Duke Nukem 3D, in DUSK that same button can actually provide text-driven responses based on objects, writing and clues in the environment. For example, analysing certain symbols will provide a rumination on what they might mean, while examining certain doors and obstacles will inform you if you can smash through them and thereby reach new areas as a result.
The use of this interaction button goes beyond such surface analysis too, since you can also use this button pick up and move different objects in the world, dovetailing neatly into DUSK’s particularly sly level design that often has secrets and concealed areas behind objects that can be shifted around, or in some cases, stacking up items to reach hidden nooks and crannies that would normally prove inaccessible. There’s a surprising amount of interactivity on display here, all adding up to the fact that DUSK isn’t quite the brain-dead retro throwback you might have assumed it was before now.
What is also clear is that DUSK absolutely gets the audiovisual presentation that retro shooters like this should embrace. From the faux-DOS initial loading screen which also wistfully recalls the chunky loading sounds of a 90s era mechanical hard disk drive, to the appropriately blocky ‘my grandpa’s 386′ visual filter mode in the menus – which ages me immediately because I used to own one, it’s obvious that DUSK is very much a product that is a loving and passionate ode to earlier and simpler time in gaming.
This love for the past translates directly into DUSK’s audiovisual presentation too from which all manner of nostalgically angular enemies and environments unfurl, not to mention foes that explode into a shower of sticky, bloody gibs when killed, all of which contributes to an offering that absolutely lives, breathes and bleeds retro shooter goodness. The sound design is absolutely spot on too, with all manner of atmospheric ambience, super satisfying weapon sounds and enemies that verbally taunt you in addition to a rip-roaring soundtrack that really opens up when the slaughter starts, DUSK certainly ranks up there as the most atmospheric boomer/retro shooter I have played in a good long while.
Despite its seemingly crusty design origins, there’s a whole lot that you can tweak about DUSK as well in terms of the user experience. From the level of auto-aim, through to the size of your weapon, the colour palette that is in use, FOV, swimming controls, crosshairs, weapon sway, and whether you want the weapon sounds to come from your controller or from your speakers, there’s just so much to tweak it borders on the ridiculous. One frustrating thing from usability perspective however is that you can accidentally load your save game instead of overwriting it – (saving is square button and reloading is triangle, so it’s easy to press the wrong input) because the game gives you no additional prompt to confirm that is what you want to do. Luckily, you can also quick save your game at anytime too, which largely mitigates the frustration of the latter issue somewhat.
From a content perspective, in addition to a trio of chunky campaign chapters and as a bonus for PlayStation folks, there is also an endless (read wave based Horde) level called ‘SILENT MOUND’ which is precisely the homage you think it is, thrusting you into a misty town and tasking you with taking down increasingly deadly waves of enemies for as long possible before you eventually buy the farm. Perhaps the only thing that DUSK lacks from the content side of things is the DUSKWorld arena multiplayer modes which can be found in the much older PC version of DUSK but not here. Here’s hoping a future update can implement this alongside the forthcoming ‘DUSK HD’ visual revamp which remasters the visuals of the game.
DUSK is that rare throwback effort that not only demonstrates an intimate understanding of why we loved those retro shooters from the 1990s, but also puts carefully implemented wrinkles in place that all feel like a natural progression of that classic formula. One of the most satisfying and atmospheric retro shooters available, you’ll find no stronger or better love letter to the halcyon days of PC shooters than DUSK.
DUSK is out now on PS4.
Review code kindly provided by PR.