Dusk is badass. I don’t know of any other way to start talking about this game other than to just get that out there. Dusk is a first-person action game that is more similar to Quake than to the story and spectacle heavy FPS games that come out today. This is immediately apparent when you first get a look at its grungy, low-poly visuals. But beyond the superficial, Dusk perfectly encapsulates what made those early first person action games so much fun, and, in a lot of ways, it exceeds those inspirations. That said, it might seem like a strange choice for a Halloween game, but I was personally surprised to discover that it was one of the most gruesome and disturbing experiences I’ve played in a while.
Dusk begins in media res with the player character waking up as an unwilling cult sacrifice in the basement of a farmhouse guarded by hooded men wielding chainsaws. After managing to escape captivity, the player emerges into a quiet countryside where monsters and cultists lurk in every dark corner. Eventually, the player reaches the government-quarantined town of Dusk, deep beneath which a secretive archaeological site has unleashed cosmic horror upon the world. The player’s ultimate goal becomes traverse a strange parallel dimension that spawned the twisted alien abominations that are assaulting the very fabric of Earth’s reality.
Dusk doesn’t have much overt storytelling. The motives of the mute main character are never explained in-game. There are no cutscenes and no other friendly characters with which to interact. The cult leader will occasionally telepathically taunt the player, but there’s no one to instruct the player on specifically what they should be doing which contrasts with the majority of action games released today. Storytelling is really more environmental in nature. The player learns about the world of Dusk via the places and things they witness along their journey.
I think the low-level storytelling is a key part of Dusk’s appeal. Modern video games, especially big budget ones, tend to have a preoccupation with making sure the player always understands exactly what is happening and what they should be doing. As a result, they often tend to get bogged down with cutscenes, radio conversations, tutorials, setpieces, etc. Dusk, on the other hand, just lets the player run loose. As I have limited free time for games these days, the fact that Dusk just cuts straight to the fun stuff is incredibly refreshing.
The key to this is in how incredibly well-designed Dusk’s levels are. They tend to be highly non-linear, offering the player multiple paths and directions to explore at any given moment. Stages like these could falter by becoming too confusing or maze-like, too easy for the player to get lost, but I never really had this issue with Dusk. It is complex without being confusing. Each area feels distinctive and memorable, which makes it easy to find one’s way around. I really enjoyed exploring this game, discovering what oddities and horrific sights lay around every corner, unlocking the vast number of secrets the game hides, and getting hooked on the adrenaline rush that each enemy ambush brought.
With 33 levels divided across 3 episodes, I was a bit worried that the game would start to get repetitive. Fortunately, the game has a ton of imagination packed into its sweeping journey. What starts off as a struggle for survival in a dark countryside filled with cultists and killers eventually morphs into a trek through secretive high-tech facilities harboring strange and unrestrained experiments and eventually across the warped landscapes of cosmic abomination. With each loading screen to usher in a new chapter, I always felt on the edge of something strange and surprising.
As an action game, Dusk is a lightfooted run-and-gun. Like Serious Sam or Quake, the player has gotta always be moving, less they become an easy target. There is a good variety of weapons, and the enemies are designed in such a way that makes most of the weapons fairly useful to the player. In a lot of Dusk’s classic counterparts, I usually found myself defaulting to using only one or two weapons that were clearly the most powerful, and only grudgingly using the lesser ones when I was out of ammo for the favorites. Dusk, on the other hand, does a good job of designing different situations that uniquely suit particular weapons, thus giving the player fairly frequent reason to mix things up and not simply rely on the shotgun or rocket launcher.
Despite the fact that Dusk is a fairly kinetic and aggressive action game, I was impressed by how well the developers were able to infuse it with the atmosphere and tension of a horror game. You wouldn’t necessarily think that an action game where the player is routinely outgunning dozens of enemies at a time could be scary, but Dusk can often be truly suspenseful. There were a ton of times when I was getting goosebumps because I knew a disturbing reveal was being ominously teased. The game oozes atmosphere, and I thought it was great at psyching me out. One of my favorite levels features the player descending downward through a cave that leads deep into the Earth. As the cave got narrower and more tortuous, I found myself becoming increasingly anxious about what I would find at the end of the long, downward spiraling tunnel. Something that really helps is the grungy, low-poly graphics which go beyond being a sentimental call back to classic games and provide a level of abstraction, aliennes, and crudeness that greatly enhance the murky and unsettling nature of Dusk’s world. Simply put, the game does an amazing job at balancing the power fantasy of taking on huge hordes of enemies with a feeling of vulnerability toward the hidden threats that lie in wait for the player.
Dusk is a quintessential example of a nostalgia trip done right. It doesn’t merely exist as a desperate attempt to recapture the fond memories of the past. Rather, it understands the elements that made those classics so great, elements which are often discarded or downplayed in modern game design, and then it enhances and advances those elements with its own ideas in a way that exceeds its inspirations. I honestly have no hesitation in saying that Dusk truly outdoes many of the action games that it seeks to honor.
The recent reveal of Serious Sam 4 got me thinking about its predecessor. I picked up Serious Sam 3 fairly close to when it came out, but I only got a few hours in before life events distracted me. After everything had settled down, it sort of fell by the wayside, as I was ready to move on to other games. But it was somewhat fortuitous that SS4 got me thinking about the game again. I really need a game that just serves as a distraction right now, one that just lets me zone out and relax, and I’ve always found the Serious Sam games to be fairly good at that. I’ve never beat the game, so I decided it was time to rectify that.
Despite the fact that I consider myself a major Serious Sam fan, I honestly couldn’t tell you what the story is to any of these games. They are obviously about an extraterrestrial invasion of Earth and have something to do with time travelling aliens messing around in Ancient Egypt, but other than that, the details of the plot completely elude me. Like I don’t know who these alien hordes are, and why they’re so dead set on coming to Earth and wrecking up the place. The invaders are led by an entity called Mental, but what/who he/she actually is and his/her motivations are utterly beyond my comprehension.
Serious Sam 3 is a prequel to the first game of the series, Serious Sam: The First Encounter. Obviously, you might expect, like I did, that a prequel would fill in some of the elusive backstory. There is a brief cutscene at the beginning of the game that lays out Mental’s assault on the Earth, but this quick introduction only raises more questions than it answers. We then cut away to Sam Stone helicoptering into Egypt with his squad mates on a mission to find a secret weapon that can stop the invaders. Everyone is wearing tactical gear and camo, prepared for the mission ahead of them….except for Sam, who inexplicably wears a t-shirt, jeans, and sunglasses with colored lenses (true to his wardrobe in the original game). I feel like right away, I’ve stumbled into some sort of joke that’s meant to imply that I really shouldn’t think too hard about the events to follow.
And of course, story is really only set dressing in Serious Sam. These games are deeply true to themselves. They set out to be the most intense die-hard action games out there, and they don’t pretend to be anything otherwise. When Serious Sam: The First Encounter was released, I feel like the word was that it was a game that set out to recapture the pure no-frills adrenaline of games like Doom and Rise of the Triad. That and that the game was just really good looking for its time. With the advent of games likes Half-Life and Unreal, action games had started to focus more on story and atmosphere than on pure action. Serious Sam was deeply retrograde in this respect. But while the start of the game did sort of harken back to Doom, Serious Sam eventually develops its own identity, one that couldn’t have existed on the technology that existed at the time of Doom.
What really differentiates Serious Sam is scale and scope. Classic Doom is essentially a maze game, born out of first-person dungeon crawlers. Within that game, players explore labyrinthine corridors and structures, with most of the action being close quarters. While Serious Sam games tend to have a few levels like this, most of the game instead opts for wider open spaces that serve as huge arenas for extensive hordes of enemies to besiege the player all at once. At a given moment, dozens upon dozens, if not hundreds upon hundreds, can flood out of the woodwork to descend upon Sam. The sheer number of enemies Sam can face at any instant is what really sets the Serious Sam series a part from other action games.
While it’s easy to see how such a game could quickly become an overwhelming experience, these games tend to be balanced well enough that, for the most part, they don’t descend into relentless frustration. The trick is to keep moving. Enemies don’t really track Sam all that well, which means as long as you don’t stay in the same spot (or better yet, move in serpentine patterns) you can slip through their incoming projectiles. Another important strategy is to retreat backwards toward the direction you came. The faster moving enemies will manage to keep up with Sam, but the slower moving (and more dangerous enemies) won’t be able to catch up. This divide and conquer tactic allows you to take out the faster and weaker enemies first, and then proceed toward the bigger and more threatening enemies.
I enjoy a lot of different types of games. I like games like Final Fantasy which have a heavy focus on storytelling. I like games like Dark Souls that have rich and complex mechanics to master. And I like games like Fallout that present a vast and immersive world to explore. But sometimes a Big Dumb Action Game that just focuses on getting directly to the excitement can be really cathartic for me. I feel that I’m the kind of person that has difficulty relaxing, and I think the problem stems from the fact that I have trouble silencing and shutting down my thoughts. My head has too much noise in it. I like games like Serious Sam because the action is unfiltered. The experience doesn’t have a lot of story or setpieces or other interruptions that stop my brain from being in a very focused state on the action, and this focused state burns off brain cycles from being used on thinking about work or other sources of stress.
By the time I had beaten it, I felt Serious Sam 3 was a thoroughly worthy entry in the greater Serious Sam series, but I would still recommend Serious Sam: The First and Second Encounter over this entry. For various reasons, I just think those two games are a little more fun. The only solid issue I had with SS3 was the final level. It was a massive slog. The level is set in a long, fairly linear canyon that seemingly goes on forever and terminates in the final boss fight of the game. And they take the game’s signature element, the massive hordes of enemies, a little too far. There were way way to many enemies in this level. It took me forever to get to the end, and I was completely ready for the game to be over and done with by the time I made it.
The final boss fight is also a little odd. Another signature of the Serious Sam series is that the games end in bosses that are ridiculously giant. I remember how people freaked out over the first game’s ending, and how big the last boss was. At the time, I don’t know if anything that big had ever been seen in a game. Certainly not anything that moved. Serious Sam 3 doesn’t disappoint when it comes to the sheer volume of the screen that the final enemy takes up. However, my issue is that you don’t actual fight him in a typical way. Rather, he’s like a puzzle that needs to be solved, and the solution requires an item that is just haphazardly hidden in the level, and there’s no indication given that you need to look for this item. I had to pull up a guide on Steam to actually figure out what I was supposed to do. Once I found this item, the rest was ridiculously easy. I would have been let down by the anticlimax had I not been so ready for the game to end.
All those issues aside, Serious Sam 3 is a great modernization of the series, but it doesn’t do a whole lot to meaningful advance the formula that it is built upon. I’m liking what I’ve been reading about Serious Sam 4, however. SS4 is a prequel to SS3 (which is in turn a prequel to SS1), and it deals with the onset of the alien invasion of the Earth, rather than its aftermath. Action seems to take place all across the planet, as opposed to being contained to just Egypt. And they seem like they are adding a lot of interesting new enemy types. SS3 introduced a few cool new enemies, but it was mostly reliant on the staples of the series that were introduced in SS1. I’m actually really excited for SS4 now, and I hope it can really be a turning point for the series to gain the popularity it’s deserved for a while. And maybe….just maybe… it will finally give a satisfactory explanation as to what is actually happening in these games.