Reviews

In 'Duskers', Knowledge Is the Most Important Resource of All

There are no good choices in Duskers, as the game constantly forces you to work with limited resources and, more importantly, with limited knowledge.


Duskers

Publisher: Misfits Attic
Rated: N/a
Players: 1
Price: $19.99
Platforms: PC (reviewed), Mac
Developer: Misfits Attic
Release date: 2016-05-18
URL

I lost Orson in the galaxy of Hope. He was one of three drones -- Abby and Tommy were the others -- and it started the way it always starts. Fly to a derelict ship, check my loadout, and dock. Open the airlock and creep forward. Power up the generator and check the map. I know there are enemies, but I don’t know where they are or how they’ll try to kill me.

Orson’s my scout. Tommy has a motion scanner, and if the adjacent room is clear, Orson goes in. The rhythm settles in: scan, move, scan, move. I come across a door. “Results inconclusive”. There could be an enemy in the next room, or it could be nothing. Do I risk it? I haven’t found any scrap or fuel yet, and I need to make every run count. Screw it. Open the door.

Orson’s last moments: an open doorway, a flying terror, static. What was that? Doesn’t matter. Get out, get out, get out. It killed Orson, and it can kill the rest of them. Power down the generator, get the remaining drones back in, and close the airlock. Don’t look back.

***

Duskers is a game about the unknown. You explore abandoned ships in a procedurally generated universe devoid of non-hostile life, scavenging for supplies that delay your inevitable demise. Scattered across the ships are log entries that read a bit like journals in zombie movies, where everything’s going fine until, very quickly, things are not fine at all.

You control up to four drones at a time. There’s a satisfying mechanical heft to the drones’ movement, with motors whirring and spinning up. You can use the arrow keys to manually control each drone, but the majority of the action takes place in the command line. That’s right, Duskers has a command line that comes straight out of your Linux-induced nightmares. Want to open door d10? Type “d10” and press enter. Want to activate your motion sensor? Simple, type “motion”. The same goes for activating the generator, arming a turret, accessing the ship’s computer interface, and pretty much every possible action. In Duskers, the mouse is extraneous. In the early goings, I found myself clicking on menu options out of habit before realizing I had to use the keyboard.

Removing direct control from the the player can lead to some terrifically tense moments. Orson’s tragic demise, for example, had me frantically typing “navigate all home” to save my other drones. As they slowly, painfully slowly, trundled back to my ship, I typed in “exit” and hovered over the enter key, ready to close the airlock as soon as all my drones made it back. Typos can mean the difference between life and death, and it’s especially easy to flub the proper syntax when swarms of God-knows-what are closing in.

If you beat the odds and manage to survive, you’ll find new abilities, ship upgrades, and drones. This is crucial because everything in Duskers deteriorates. The more you use, say, your motion sensor, the more likely it is that it’ll simply break. Do you spend precious scrap to repair the motion sensor,, or do you decide to invest something else? There are no good choices, as the game constantly forces you to work with limited resources, and more importantly, with limited knowledge.

While scrap and fuel are essential to survival, knowledge might be the most important resource of all. Your drones are equipped with grainy, lo-res cameras through which you can only see what’s directly in front of you. You can switch to a schematic view, which presents a vector-graphics overview of the entire ship, but unless you have certain upgrades installed, rooms don’t appear until you physically enter them. And, of course, each room could potentially contain an enemy that will fly at you out of nowhere and kill you. While there are innumerable terrors in Duskers, perhaps the most terrifying moment is before the start of each mission, when the ship that you’re about to enter is a blank void waiting to be explored.

The game’s aesthetics go a long way towards evoking an atmosphere of dread. Similar to Alien: Isolation's "lo-fi sci-fi" look, Duskers takes place in a retro-based future. The drones’ video feed will often blur into washes of fuzz, bringing back memories of adjusting the TV aerial, and there’s a constant ambient hum that evokes a dusty CRT. The sound work in particular is phenomenal. The blips and bloops of the computer interface somehow manage to sound both innocuous and menacing, especially the shrill warning sound of a disabled drone or of an oncoming asteroid. Because you’re given so little information, every scrap of input becomes fodder for fear: the groaning of a ship’s hull, the vague buzzing of a nearby enemy, the sweep of a drone’s vision cone upon entering an unexplored room.

My only complaint with Duskers is an obvious one. it’s very, very difficult. One particularly short-lived run left me with a single surviving drone before I decided to call it quits and reset. Duskers is a game that demands your full attention, and if you fail, punishment is swift and brutal. The tutorial teaches you the basics, but there are many techniques that you can only learn through trial and error. If you’re interested in playing, I’d recommend turning some of the difficulty settings to easy, as I did shortly after a series of abortive runs.

If you’re willing to put in the time, though, you’ll find a cold, hostile universe that’s absolutely worth exploring. The unknown is overwhelming in Duskers. It will swallow up your resources, your drones (alas, poor Orson), your very existence. But for the time being, you push forward, holding your breath before you open every door.

8

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