At a time when gaming devices are trying to make the player feel even closer to the action, via VR or ever higher polygon counts, it’s refreshing to find a game that manages to create a tangible sense of involvement by going in the other direction. The game in question is Misfits Attic’s PC game Duskers, and it is really rather clever.
The setup is that the player is alone on a spaceship with dwindling supplies and a handful of drones for company. A number of derelict ships are nearby, their floating bulks teasing with the promise of valuable equipment and answers as to what has happened in the universe to cause such dereliction. The player decides which floating metal-coffin to approach and board, taking control via a keyboard-led GUI and command-line that does a great job of channeling a retro fuzzy-screened DOS-like aesthetic of yore.
When you dock with a vessel, the computer links to the other ship’s systems, giving you a summary of the condition, threats and, if you are lucky, a snippet of an email or ship’s log that hints at what has befallen the crew. Your own computer handily links various tidbits of information into various theories for your perusal and will advise you on your next course of action if there is anything actionable in the information.
Finding out what happened is all well and good, but if you can’t survive for more than a few days, I don’t suppose your poor character would be especially bothered. This is where the drones come in. Once the computers have had a quick chin-wag and given you any info, you are dropped into a schematic view of the new ship, your drones sitting in an airlock, the mysteries of the new craft or station hidden in an ominous black nothingness. This is the risk and reward part of the game proper, the danger of opening that door and trying to control and mitigate the risks of whatever is still roaming the creaking corridors. Your drones do have a number of upgrades that can help things however, with more available via the salvaging of damaged drones that you will hopefully find as you explore. Motion is one that you will likely use a heck of a lot, scanning lines of red, yellow or green indicating threat, unclear or safety. If you can trust it. One of the things that I love about Duskers is that any possible crutches, be it Motion scanning, Stealth or other things all have a chance of failing, so you can’t get too comfortable using any one technique or tactic for too long. On top of that, what happens if the drone with your best selection of upgrades gets trashed by some unseen creature? You aren’t just up a certain brown creek, you feel like you’re already in the water looking at the sky as your rickety row-boat drifts away.
Your drones, and access to ships systems, are all controlled by the game’s command-line interface (although you can manually move the drones with the arrow keys in the drone’s eye view). As an example, if you want to open a door or airlock, you can simply type the airlock’s name to toggle if it is open or not: “a2” would open airlock 2, assuming it was closed at the time. If you want to move drone 2 to room 5, you would type “navigate 2 r5”. The game does a good job of auto-completing commands, so as soon as you type the first few letters of most commands, usually the one you were aiming for will auto-complete, which is certainly welcome. There are also more advanced ways to carry out commands, using a semi-colon to enter a string of commands to be carried out or even using the Alias file, a file in which you can create macro-style strings of action that can be executed with mere letters or a single word. That being said, it doesn’t matter how many commands you string together, sometimes it counts for very little. It’s strangely scary and tense to see a drone’s health begin to go down, warnings alerting you to it being under attack, and you sitting at your keyboard frozen with indecision, wondering what to type, where to go and what to do. Then it’s suddenly disabled, and if you are lucky, there is a closed door between the threat and your other drones.
You wouldn’t think that a game that removes the player from direct contact with threats would be so tense, but it is. You view the world through the sensors of your ship and drones, relying on them to paint a picture, but sometimes you don’t have the right tools to cope with what you will find. Then you have to improvise. A tactic that you will learn early doors (pun intended) is to herd whatever nasty is lurking into a room next to an airlock. Any fans of Faster Than Light will be all too familiar with the satisfaction of opening the craft to the cold bosom of space and letting the hostile be killed by the void. It is strangely satisfying to see the dancing red lines of the motion detector flash green at the same time the airlock beeps open. Don’t leave the airlock open for too long however, or you will flood the room with radiation, which can spread through any other open doors, which is something I accidentally discovered to my cost. As well as the ship-based threats, there are other hazards, such as meteor strikes that can turn an already tense expedition into a race against the clock. Playing Duskers with a good set of headphones is a good idea, as there are often various audio cues to things about to go wrong, whether it’s the buzz of an enemy in a nearby room or an ominous metallic creaking, forewarned is forearmed after all.
Duskers is a rogue-like in many ways, which means that when you fail, you are often pretty much stuffed. While it seems punishing, like all good difficult games, each failure will likely teach you something, even if it’s just not to mistype the number of the door you wanted to open, unleashing something nasty in the process. My first few attempts at the game saw me beaten after visiting a mere three spaceships or so. I kept coming back and learning however, and when you get good enough to jump to different galaxies and visit many more ships, you start to feel quite smug, until it all goes to pot again. Duskers is not a completionist’s game, in so far as attempting to visit and salvage stuff from every room of a ship could quite possibly end your run. Knowing when to call it a day and spurt game-show sentiments like: “Thanks for the offer but I’ve had a great day and I’ll keep what I’ve won!” becomes just as important. I lost one of my drones in a silly manoeuvre, my best one with the tools I most enjoyed using. After swearing and losing another one shortly after, leaving me with only one more active drone, I devised a way to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and, via door opening and closing and enemy luring, managed to tow my ‘A’ drone back to my ship. That felt as much a victory as anything else I’ve encountered in Duskers, and that run lasted another four or five ship explorations I think, cobbling together repairs by scrapping other equipment, and limping through the next salvage runs without a means to do half the stuff I had become used to. This is what I enjoy, being pushed by a game to come up with new ways to approach things. Duskers does this very well.
I’m not sure how long Duskers will appeal to individual players. I guess it will all boil down to how much the player enjoys the loop of risk and reward, of tense exploration and then repeating that cycle over and over. The game procedurally generates the universe and the ships within it, and this will certainly be a boon to those that want to keep plugging away with a fresh challenge each time. As far as myself, for all that I enjoyed playing the game, I found myself having to take time away from it and play other things between the failure of a longish survival run and starting afresh. I think that was partly due to feeling the loss of the stuff I had found and upgraded, knowing that even if I started a new run moments later, it would be some time until I felt that I was making new headway again.
I found Duskers to be hard and quite unforgiving. Not every situation is salvageable, not every vessel explorable in its entirety, but the grim gadget-based exploration and survival struggle managed to get under my skin and make me feel invested in what was playing out before me. I have played few games that have presented a ship full of closed doors and have caused me to actively sit and think: “If I open X door, what am I going to do if it all goes wrong in a hurry?” Let’s just say that being a pessimist comes in mightily handy when fighting for survival in space. It also lets you smugly think “I knew that would go wrong!” when it eventually does, cushioning you from some of the frustration that will follow when you realise you’ve lost lots of cool upgraded drones.
Duskers is available for Windows, Mac and Linux and currently costs £14.99/$20. Visit the Duskers website here for more info.
GS Rating: 4.5/5
GS Reviewer: Casey Douglass
Dusker Screenshots © Copyright Misfits Attic