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As Dusk Falls Review – Decisions, Decisions

todayJuly 18, 2022 5

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As Dusk Falls on Xbox Series X

The narrative-driven, decision-based experience has been a fairly popular one ever since Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead series blew players away with its agonizing choices, engaging story, and lovable characters that could be mauled to death by zombies with one poorly-thought-out action. Since then, many have attempted to emulate it, with the Life Is Strange series largely standing as the pinnacle of what the genre has to offer. Enter As Dusk Falls, an interactive drama from developer INTERIOR/LIGHT that explores the lives of two families across a 30-year period that unintentionally cross paths on one fateful day and leave an impact on one another that will last for decades to come.

The two families first cross paths when they very nearly crash into each other on the highway. Vince, a family man recently laid off from his job as an aircraft technician, is driving to St. Louis with his wife Michelle, daughter Zoe, and father Jim, when they’re forced off the road by an oncoming pickup carrying the Holt brothers — Tyler, Dale, and Jay. A fleeting, chance encounter soon gives way to a hostage situation, where the Holt brothers have taken Vince and his family captive in a standoff with the police after holing themselves up at a motel, and its this scenario where one half — called Book 1 in-game — of As Dusk Falls’ duration plays out.

This is definitely the more intense of the two halves of As Dusk Falls, with its latter half doing a lot of the legwork on the repercussions of the incident, while also intermittently going back in time to look at the immediate aftermath of the Holt family’s actions. It also feels a lot less focused than its first half, with players taking control of father Vince and youngest Holt brother Jay throughout the entirety, making decisions that impact one another’s family and the general outcome of the hostage situation.

It makes for a truly compelling and gripping narrative, one where, if I’m being completely honest, I mixed up some of my choices just to try and keep the action and drama going for longer, rather than playing a typically ‘good’ or ‘safe’ option like I tend to do in these games. The characters, though, played a large part in helping me decide when it came to the tougher choices. Vince and his family are very likable, down on their luck, facing health problems, relationship troubles, a legal dilemma, all the while bringing up a young child as best they can. Playing as Vince, it’s easy to make the choices that best protect your family, while often compromising your own personal position.

The Holts on the other hand are a more complex family; a toxic upbringing has resulted in the brothers being a morally mixed bag of individuals with youngest sibling Jay the last bastion of a good conscience. It’s in this context that you shape the life of Jay through your decisions. Do you toe the line of your brothers and rest of his immediate family? Or do you let your gut instincts guide you to a more righteous way of living?

Whichever character’s onscreen, the voice acting is fantastic, helping to elevate scenes, adding intensity to heated moments or authenticity to its more sobering ones. That latter point is something As Dusk Falls aims to tackle head-on, with themes of suicide — which can be completely skipped over, to the game’s credit — childhood trauma, mental health, and other mature themes. In some instances, it grapples with these in an effective manner; family conflict and the lasting effects of childhood trauma in particular, but in others, it feels a little brushed under the carpet.

A scene depicting the effects of drugs arguably does more to glorify their consumption than warn of the dangers, with a character freaking out only being told it’s okay they’re on their own now as any significant repercussion to their actions. As Dusk Falls’ biggest downfall — its ending, which I can’t go into for spoiler reasons — also feels like it somewhat discredits all of the work its second ‘book’ does of highlighting the impact that childhood trauma can have on the human psyche decades later. That in itself was a rather fascinating part of the plot, but it concluded in a rather heavy-handed manner that left me a little disappointed given how well developer INTERIOR/NIGHT had weaved such a mature and complex theme into its narrative.

That being said, As Dusk Falls’ story is an interesting one, full of tough choices to make, unexpected bumps in the road, and intense encounters that keep your attention. There are a few inconsistencies and unrealistic plot points along the way — such as why, even if Jay is less morally broken than his older brothers, he would choose to help a hostage in a situation he’s never been in before than… you know, follow his brother’s lead, or why Vince’s wife Michelle goes from disagreeing Vince should pursue a lawsuit against his former employer, to suddenly agreeing that he should do it because it’s what he wants and not what she wants. Why would she not be supportive of this at the time? Their relationship, like many, has its complexities and inconsistencies, and it’s not always clear the motive to Michelle’s actions in particular.

Whether this was an intentional flaw in their personalities and relationship, I’m not sold, but it’s not a big enough blip to tarnish the experience entirely, and likely one that comes from the challenge of writing a narrative with so many branching paths.

There’s also the manner in which the Holt boys’ mother manages to get involved in the hostage situation, regardless of whether she and the Sheriff know one another, it just doesn’t happen like that. I get it. As Dusk Falls is a drama. It’s fiction with events blown out of proportion in order to make for a compelling and gripping rollercoaster ride of a narrative. But these can also cheapen the story you’re trying to tell, especially when you’re dealing with sensitive subjects, and cliché moments such as Dale asking a girl out on a date as he and his family are in the midst of a hostage situation don’t have the desired effect I imagine they were designed to.

The claim that As Dusk Falls takes place over 30 years is a bit of a stretch, too. In its runtime, As Dusk Falls only really covers about 14-15 years, with Zoe going from being six years old to a freshman in college. Even then, 90% of the story takes place in one time period, and the days and months that follow.

I had hoped for a decision-based visual novel similar to the movie Boyhood –a study of the development of these families over the course of decades, specific, significant points in which stretched out to make up the meat of the experience. Perhaps I went in with my expectations set too high, but I couldn’t shake the feeling As Dusk Falls had a lot of wasted potential on this front.

as dusk falls review

If you don’t try to dive to deep into As Dusk Falls’ narrative, you’ll have a good time. It’s just difficult not to when the subject matter often asks you to engage with it on a deeper-than-surface-level.

What I wasn’t entirely sure on when I started As Dusk Falls was its unique visual style. A sort of moving visual novel, with particular freeze-frames of characters used to portray their actions and emotions in an otherwise moving, real-time world. It can be a little jarring to begin with, but it’s only when you sit back and really study them that you appreciate the detail in each one. INTERIOR/NIGHT used a soundstage for the voice recording, which allowed them to take freeze-frames of each voice actor’s facial expressions as they performed, which is then recreated in the game’s visuals.

It makes for far more believable and less janky-looking mouth shapes and facial expressions than you get in something like Supermassive Games’ The Quarry or Until Dawn, which look great but can sometimes err into uncanny valley territory. A pained expression scrawled across Vince’s face as he makes a truly horrific decision, or the look of surprise and shock on Jay’s as things take an unexpected turn lingering on your screen for a few seconds helps to hammer the emotions of each character home without the distraction of other things moving around or billions of polygons on-screen at any given time. It’s simple, but incredibly effective.

I can’t deny there was a part of me that would still have loved to have seen Vince, Zoe, Jay, Michelle and the rest of the cast in fully-animated scenes, but As Dusk Falls’ striking visual style certainly achieves its intended effect and makes it stand out in an increasingly-crowded genre.

As Dusk Falls is still a game, though, and it’s the game-like qualities that feel particularly lacking and, in some cases, unnecessary. The gameplay can be broken down into three specific sections — dialogue and action choices, Quick-Time Events, and searching your surroundings — and while they form the real meat of the gameplay and dictate the various branching paths you’ll embark down, the latter really doesn’t add anything. Using the analog stick to move a sluggish cursor around a static screen of a room or environment, all so a character can eventually find the one thing they need to advance the scene and dialog just isn’t very fun, and feels like it only serves to pad the runtime out a little.

Quick-time events are an even more interesting casepoint, as, there were a good few times I unintentionally failed them in my first playthrough, only to see no major consequence of doing so. Perhaps a line of dialog to tell Jay off as he missed a turning, but in what seemed to be a very significant moment, missing the QTE didn’t have the catastrophic effects it absolutely should’ve had.

Off the back of this, I started a second playthrough with the sole task of determining how important QTEs were. Like some of the choices you’ll have to make — like in most narrative-driven experiences — these can be superficial, giving an illusion that your actions and choices truly matter in the story.

as dusk falls review

Even then, the QTEs don’t feel all that engaging. It’s the same five actions repeated over and over again — tap A, hold A, mash A, move the left analog stick in a certain direction or rotate it around — to the point they’re never challenging in the first place. The only reason I failed them was because I put the controller down while making notes for this review and got caught off-guard.

In the name of being thorough, on my second playthrough, I handed my partner the controller, downloaded the game’s companion app on my phone, and we got to work exploring some other branching paths of the narrative, and… it’s okay? The app is functional enough, using swipes and rapid taps or holds on your screen to replicate the controller inputs, and there’s a ‘takeover’ feature which forces your choice through over your partner’s, where if you otherwise select different choices, the game will randomly pick one… or if you’re playing with two people, it just alternates between you both. There’s some joy to be had in forcing all of your party’s hands by using your limited ‘takeover’ options, but I can’t say the game was all that elevated by playing in multiplayer.

As Dusk Falls is a mixed bag. I really admire it for trying to tackle a difficult subject matter head-on, and in fleeting moments it does this excellently. It has a fantastic voice cast that help bring the characters to life, but then it undoes all of its work with clichéd narrative beats and awkward, unrealistic moment-to-moment action.

I’d gone in hoping for a groundbreaking style of narrative-driven experience, one that operated on a sprawling web of branching paths over the course of 30 years of events, and was left underwhelmed by a fairly by-the-numbers entry in the genre that only dips its toe into its three decades-of family history and character entanglement. If you’re a fan of the genre, you’ll probably have some fun with this, but it’s hardly the revelation that the decision-based, narrative-driven genre feels like it so desperately needs.

As Dusk Falls Critic Review

Reviewer: Chris Jecks | Copy provided by Publisher.