You sit alone and cold on the bridge of your small ship, painfully aware that you’re probably not going to survive the coming days. Your only companions are a trio of drones leftover from your now-forgotten mission. You’ve given them pet names--Hal, Orson, and Colin--and they are your only friends in the universe. And yet you put them in harm’s way. You expose them to unknown dangers while you cloister yourself on your ship. You send them scuttling-off to wring enough precious scrap and fuel from the bones of derelict ships to keep yourself alive, hoping to piece together information on a mysterious cataclysmic event that has seemingly stripped the universe of all other human life.
Duskers is a retro-futuristic science-fiction nightmare for anyone that fears being alone--and as best as you can tell, in this world, you are alone. You control your drones by typing into a command-line interface, watching from afar through sensors and cameras as they do your bidding. Duskers couples this control method with an art style that cohesively reinforces the game’s atmosphere, making the player and their physical keyboard an active part of the experience.
The game is played from a first-person perspective, and presents itself entirely in-fiction. The primary interface is a 1:1 representation of a computer terminal on board your ship, which you directly manipulate with the physical keyboard on your desk. You never see a digital representation of your hands flying across a keyboard. There are zero layers of abstraction. When you sit down to play Duskers, you are the protagonist. This creates a huge amount of tension. Despite the fact that your drones are the ones facing danger directly, you know that if they're destroyed you won't be far behind. By depriving you the comfort of an avatar to control, each playthrough becomes a harrowing personal experience.
Knowledge is power. Over the length of multiple playthroughs you’ll gain knowledge of the cataclysm that has seemingly stripped the universe of all human life bar your own. This knowledge comes in the form of small chunks of information taken from ship logs as you dock with them. Your own player knowledge increases in a similarly piecemeal fashion as you learn how drone and ship upgrades interact, increasing the power you wield over your surroundings.
Duskers is a game of methodical exploration. In order to survive, you carefully expand your knowledge of each derelict ship you encounter by scanning rooms, dropping sensors, and when all else fails, simply opening doors and hoping the next room is safe. You start each playthrough with three drones, and a random assortment of drone upgrades. For your first playthrough the tutorial ensures that you have the Motion upgrade, which allows a drone to detect threats in adjacent rooms. This provides a huge amount of situational awareness, making it a tempting must-have. But what if on your next playthrough you don't have the motion upgrade? Or what if it breaks and you can't afford to repair it? Suddenly you're forced to discover new methods for exploring, building on the rules and lessons you've learned previously. Experimenting with new strategies and combinations of upgrades is a huge amount of fun, and mastering them is immensely satisfying.
It’s rare to find a ship that isn’t crawling with at least one type of infestation. The first is a swarm of creatures that will take advantage of your every mistake, quickly turning your drones into piles of scrap metal. There are a number of different infestation types, but it would be a disservice to describe them in a review. Learning what an infestation is, how it behaves, and how to dispatch it is a central part of the risk and reward of Duskers. Infestations are terrifying at first encounter, but much like learning to master your upgrades, learning how to handle each infestation type is thoroughly rewarding.
You watch over your drones using a schematic view, which provides an overview of the currently-attached ship. It shows the airlock your ship is attached to, the location of your drones, and any rooms, doors, or other items you’ve discovered. The schematic view is an extremely valuable tool, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Certain actions require you to take direct control over a drone, to understand its immediate surroundings. This is necessary because threats don’t show up on the schematic view unless they’ve triggered manually-placed sensors or your motion detector, and means you’re constantly switching between views, none of which can give you 100% of the information you require in order to survive. It’s frantic and stressful, aligning perfectly with the dire situation at hand.
Vigilance is the key to Duskers. You can’t play it effectively when you’re tired or distracted, you need to be fully alert in order to survive. The second your attention wavers, you’ll forget to engage your stealth modification before opening a door to an unscanned room, or simply type the wrong door identifier, opening a room known to contain an infestation. You will fail--Duskers is challenging, and not forthcoming with information on how to improve your abilities. When your time comes you’ll know that it was because you made a mistake, not because the game somehow cheated you.
The true pleasure of playing Duskers is in mastering its interwoven systems. When your fingers are flying across your keyboard and drones are dutifully following your every command, Duskers makes you feel powerful. The cold sense of dread the setting provides never really goes away, but as you gain knowledge and resources, your confidence grows. Ultimately, Duskers is about allowing yourself to believe that you're really sitting on a rickety old space ship, with only drones for friends. You're alone, but not without hope. You may not conquer the universe, but you'll eventually learn how to survive it.