‘As Dusk Falls’ review: A sluggish small-town soap opera
As Dusk Falls is an ambitious narrative adventure game that fails to execute its grandest ideas, hemorrhaging tension along the way. It attempts to tell a mature, action-packed story about family and loss, but repeated missteps in logic and emotion strip the story of its power. From the mechanics to the branching narrative itself, As Dusk Falls sets clear goals and then fails to meet them, resulting in a choppy southwestern soap opera peppered with sluggish quick-time events.
It feels like this game was purpose-built for me to review it. I’m an Arizona native and the high-desert regions where most of As Dusk Falls takes place are home for me; I grew up hiking the mountain trails just outside of Flagstaff, camping among the creosote bushes and pine trees, and partying on the edges of the valley, surrounded by saguaros and dust. I know how the landscape shifts along the I-17 from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon, the mountains swallowing up flat dry land and spewing out smooth red rocks and craggy black cliffs.
I love my hometown and I was excited to see it portrayed in a video game, especially from a new UK studio headed up by Caroline Marchal, the lead designer of Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls. As far as the setting goes, As Dusk Falls gets it mostly right. I’m not going to be too precious about the details here – the landscape shifts from northern to southern desert in an unrealistic way and all the exit signs are European – because the environment does its job of grounding the characters in an isolated town.
What’s actually jarring is the dialect in As Dusk Falls, which leans heavily on stereotypically rural words like “ma” for mom, “pa” for dad and “pappy” for grandpa. These terms aren’t the norm in Arizona, even in small desert towns, and they come across as a cheap attempt to infuse the characters with generic “backwoods” traits.
I’d be able to forget the cliche turns of phrase if they weren’t symptomatic of the game as a whole. As Dusk Falls attempts to tell a realistic story that deals with mature subjects like death, suicide and generational trauma, but it places a Hollywood filter over all of its scenes, complete with small-town caricatures, blubbering deathbed monologues and sociopathic responses to murder. As Dusk Falls fails to let its dramatic moments breathe, choking the tension out of the game as a whole.
As Dusk Falls begins in 1998 and features a wide cast of characters, though the main story focuses on two families – one from small-town Arizona and the other passing through on a drive from Sacramento to St. Louis. The local family consists of three brothers on the brink of adulthood, plus ma and pa. The traveling family consists of a dad and mom in their early 30s, their daughter who’s about 10 and her grandpa. For the bulk of the game, you play as the youngest local and the father of the traveling family.
These families’ paths cross at a motel in the middle of the desert, where the brothers end up in a standoff with the sheriff’s department, holding everyone in the lobby hostage at gunpoint. As the standoff unfolds, players control the dad of the traveling family, deciding what to say and do in response to the brothers’ orders. The game swaps between past and present for both families, showing how they ended up in such a desperate situation, and players’ choices dictate how the story unfolds.
Though the narrative extends past the motel, there are numerous examples of lost tension in the hostage scenes alone. Details will vary depending on the choices each player makes, but in my time with the game, two significant characters ended up shot and killed inside the motel, in front of all the hostages. These characters had strong, loving ties to the remaining group members, yet their deaths were barely acknowledged. Instead, characters that should have been consumed by grief – or, like, any emotion – were soon having conversations about their travel plans and career moves, with barely a word for the dearly departed.
In As Dusk Falls, it feels like the second a character dies, they’ve served their purpose; the moment anyone steps off-screen, they’re forgotten. This is a pitfall of interactive storytelling – even hits like Until Dawn have awkward pauses or nonsensical dialogue when the writers haven’t properly accounted for all of the player’s decisions. Still, as a game that relies on narrative-driven progression, these anomalies should’ve been addressed. It’s also worth noting that As Dusk Falls can be played with friends online and locally, though I’ve only tried single-player.
The motel is a mess of dramatic but illogical events: The dad exits the hostage situation multiple times and always ends up running back to his captors, throwing out a line like, “but my family’s in there” as explanation. Characters disappear and suddenly reappear when it’s time for a big story beat – and this includes the entire sheriff’s squad. A woman is allowed to walk into the motel in the middle of an active, already-lethal standoff. And don’t get me started on the dad’s two-way pager, which doesn’t have a keyboard but somehow still functions like a modern text app.
As Dusk Falls expands beyond ‘90s Arizona, traveling across the country and 14 years into the future. Most drama in the game feels forced and unearned, and what remains plays out like a soap opera, subsisting on surface-level emotion and oddly timed monologues.
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