Review: Duskers

Brendan had just finished docking into the generator and powering up the adjacent rooms. Jeff, having successfully towed the shut down carcass of Sarah back onto the ship, waited patiently as the others finished rounding up fuel and materials from the derelict station. Having lured a detected hostile into a room with automated defenses that Jeff had previously turned on, I figured I should send Ethan back into that room to recover whatever the deceased hostile had on its body. I told him to run the motion sensors one more time – everything seemed to be fine, the room as sterile as only space can be. I toggled myself back to the layout interface, input the command for Brendan and Jeff to return to our ship and told Ethan to navigate to the room with the deceased hostile. We came in three and went back in two, because to the turret I forgot to deactivate, Ethan was as much an intruder as the alien.

There’s a deep, pervasive tension in that which you don’t see, and Duskers is a game that capitalizes on that. If you’re playing it safe, odds are it’ll take a while before you actually see an enemy, whatever they may be. Extensive use of motion sensors, compartmentalization and defense systems meant that for the first ships I boarded, all I saw of enemies were their indicator on the map or their already deceased body. You see, the drones you control in Duskers aren’t Predators carrying a couple of Hellfire missiles each, but utility umanned vehicles whose purpose is to scout and gather supplies. You are prey.

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Tommy is just a drone. He – it – is not a person. I will not get sad if Tommy dies. I mean, gets destroyed. Robots can’t die. Right?

You’ll start with control over three drones, aptly named with nicknames or common names to make you attached to them make them easily recognizable, something compounded by the fact that they play discreetly different sounds each time you select one. Each drone comes outfitted with a couple of upgrades that allow them to perform certain actions: from essential ones such as gather and generator, which allow you to pick up scraps and power up sections of a ship; to non-essential ones such as deploying turrets or becoming invisible. As the drone operator, it’s your job to discover what has happened to mankind, which seems to have entirely died off, all the while keeping yourself supplied with enough fuel to survive.

It was down to Matt and Sarah. Jeff, their third companion, had been chewed to non-functionality by god-knows-what – I blamed myself for not taking a spare set of motion sensors and instead having to resort to scouting with Jeff’s frail body. The remaining egress route was, unfortunately, blocked both by his carcass and the presence of his malefactor, some creature of unknown form. Things looked grim. I could only open the doors while Matt stayed on the generator, and leaving the entire path to the ship’s airlock meant that the hostile creature would also have free reign over Matt and Sarah’s extraction route. There was, however, an airlock even farther away from me, one I could not possibly reach, but that opened up another possibility…

How you actually control your drones and the gameplay is what’s remarkably novel in Duskers: while you can at any point zoom in on a drone and control it with your arrow keys, seeing and hearing the boarded ship through its sensors, for specific actions or bulk-control of the drones you have to input instructions into a command line and they’ll carry it out. There’s a surprising wealth of different commands and combinations you can use, and once I got acquainted with them I only zoomed in onto my drones when I had to carry out the (shivers) task of scouting a room blind. With limited supplies and equipment that deteriorates, each mission entails two questions: ‘Will it be worth it?’ and ‘Do I have an option?’. Nothing speaks of despair as much as the drone who had the equipment to sense adjacent rooms for enemies breaking down (or just that particular component) in the middle of a mission, leaving you blind for its remainder.

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The best way to survive is to never see more of an enemy than its red indicator on the ship layout map.

Fortunately, you’ll also find new drones and equipment as you salvage ships, such as modules that you can use on your ship, like the ‘Remote Power’ module, which allowed me to get generators working without having a drone with the ‘Generator’ upgrade adjacent to it, and others that you can use on your drones, opening up new tactical approaches to surveying and scavenging ships. As each mission that you deploy a drone deteriorates its equipment, increasing the likelihood of it breaking in use, it becomes vital to maximize the amount of scrap you return with from each ship so that you can both repair and maintain your drones, and before long I was making sure to not only avoid, but kill all present hostiles in order to scavenge their remains for much-needed loot.

I commanded my ship to dock on the other airlock. I did not know where exactly my newfound nemesis lurked, but I knew he was in some way connected to the airlock I had to extract from, which my ship was now not connected to anymore. Knowing that whatever radiation I exposed Matt and Sarah to would be much less of an immediate threat than the lurking creature, I opened the airlock and prayed that my enemy wouldn’t have some means to avoid being flushed out. I waited for what seemed like minutes, closed the airlock once more, docked my ship back onto it and opened all the doors that lead from Matt and Sarah’s generator room to the ship. Jeff was lost, but I gathered enough supplies to last another day.

While the difficulty does go up significantly, with new types of enemy, hazards that range from asteroids pelting the ship you’re in to irradiated rooms, and increasingly large places to explore, I did feel like at some point the difficulty versus my interest in the game hit a plateau and then slowly began to decline. Duskers was at its best when I was discovering new things at a fresh pace, when each recovered droid was a novelty and essential to my arsenal, but once I’d seen what most of the threats were and learnt how I could deal with them, going through ships with dozens of rooms started to feel a bit tedious and daunting, repeating commands and actions to carefully survey each section before moving forward.

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The logs and messages you find that aren’t corrupted lay out your objectives and shed some light onto what has happened, despite never relinquishing the mystery of Dusker’s setting entirely.

Death, and restarting, is a main feature of Duskers. Once you lose all your drones or run out of fuel, you’ll have to begin anew, bringing nothing but your personal experience into the next playthrough. With its procedural generation, you’ll never quite start in the same situation as before, and it fortunately allows you to carry into successive playthroughs the logs and messages you’ve discovered before. While the story certainly wasn’t what kept me playing, I enjoyed the fact that the entries you discover – given to you in a random order – are permanent, as encountering and reading the same bits every time I started anew would quickly grow old.

One thing that merits highlight is how cohesive the game’s elements are: the sound design, artstyle and gameplay fit together like apple and pie. Vibrant green, red and blue colors contrast with the dark background of a ship’s layout, matching with what you’d expect from a game that’s controlled via command line, and the subtle sound of your drone’s hovering, opening doors and gathering scraps enhance the sense of loneliness and lurking danger.

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Between missions you can upgrade and modify your drones and ship, read what you’ve found so far and designate your next system or ship to explore.

Duskers is now among the list of games I use to exemplify why I prefer the indie development scene. Not only does it have unique gameplay and novel mechanics, it manages to create tension and panic with very little in terms of eye-candy, merit of fantastic sound-design and the fear that comes from seeing your plan be torn down piece by piece due to unexpected events and lack of forethought. It’s complex and layered, and while the “end-game” might suffer a bit from overtly-long missions, the core gameplay was so satisfying that I kept coming back to it after several deaths. A word of advice: mind the vents, and don’t name your drones after your family.

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