As Dusk Falls review: The line between drama and soap opera
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As Dusk Falls is a new motion-graphics game from Interior/Night that walks the line between high-quality storytelling and a soap opera. I haven’t quite figured that out myself yet, but I do think it’s a high-quality production.
Built by an indie game studio, the art style of As Dusk Falls is economical. It focuses on storytelling through still images and motion graphics. That seems like a serious budget-cutting strategy, enabling a small indie team to use 2D still images instead of realistic 3D graphics of characters in a crime drama.
That’s what I thought at first, but I came around to thinking that it was very well done. That is because the voice acting behind the 2D characters is outstanding. It’s why motion comics, which have become a very interesting genre of applications on mobile app platforms.
I’ve played through both Book One of the game and Book Two, which feels like an expansion of the first game. The game came on July 19, and CEO Caroline Marchal, creative director, was highlighted at the Xbox and Bethesda Games Showcase. It’s the first original game coming from the new studio. (This review has some small plot spoilers).
Marchal said the intention is to tell stories that help us understand the heartbreaking beauty of life. As Dusk Falls depicts the story of a family on a road trip vacation, taking a nostalgic drive along Route 66 through Arizona in 1998. They run into trouble and get stuck at a motel. Then three robbers show up trying to escape with dirty money that they stole from a corrupt sheriff’s safe.
What happens that night at leaves some permanent scars, even for those who make it out alive. It reminds me of a Telltale game, but with a very different art style. The movement and interactivity are still a bit limited.
But as a player, you’re not there to explore the world. You’re there to make choices. You play as multiple characters whose lives are intertwined on that fateful day. And if you blow it, the consequences are life or death.
The game also has a novel multiplayer/co-op mode that your friends can play on a companion app on the Google Play or iOS app stores. Those friends can vote on the choices in a majority-rule format, with an override vote possible. Up to eight players can join on the same screen using Xbox controllers and the As Dusk Falls companion app.
It should be noted that player discretion is advised, as the game has playable situations related to intense violence, family conflict, mental health, suicide, and other mature themes. In these choices, you have to decide whether your fate is tied to your family’s toxic influence, or if you can break free from it. What will you sacrifice for the ones you love? Can you overcome your past?
Two different families struggle to survive, protect, and endure. The game starts with the Walker family, a mixed race couple — Vince and Michelle — with a six-year-old daughter Zoe making their way across the country. Vince’s estranged and ill father, Jim, accompanies them.
The Holt family is desperate and has turned to crime to deal with a debt problem. Three brothers — Tyler, the eldest, Dale the middle son, and the youngster Jay — decide to steal money from the safe of a home that belongs to Dante, the town sheriff. Inside the home, you can make decisions that cause delays or mistakes, and the police start chasing the boys.
Jay is clearly a loner teenager with his own moral compass, even though the rest of the family fits into the role of hardened criminals. As the burglary goes wrong and they lead police on a chase, you play as Jay and have to decide how much of a criminal you want to be.
Jay thinks to himself, “You ever know you’re headed the wrong way, but you’ve gone too far to turn back?”
On the other side, Vince Walker tries to lead his family as it gets caught at the Desert Dream Motel, the wrong place at the wrong time. The Holts take Walker’s family hostage at the motel and try to fend off the police. Vince Walker has to appease not only the Holts as well as Dante the sheriff to make sure that he comes out of the hostage crisis with his family and his dignity intact.
The crisis at the motel is a tense standoff, and decisions have a life-or-death consequence to them. But where the game’s storytelling really shines is with the flashbacks and flashforwards that show how the events at the motel are all connected. Zoe is haunted her entire life by what happens, and she tries to make sense of the aftermath long after the tense events are over. Through Zoe, the storytellers get to tell a story about mental health and the consequences of traumatic events. I thought her thread was moving.
I think it’s where you make the choices that the game shows its true colors. Is it an Oscar-worthy movie? No. It’s more like a television drama, walking the line between a solid crime drama and a soap opera. I felt like it was a soap opera when it gave me nothing but bad choices. For instance, a car approaches a police roadblock. You have to choose between fighting a cop or speeding away in a high-speed chase. The most logical conclusion, of waiting to see if the cop will let you go, isn’t even offered.
In another scene, you have to choose between allowing someone to be harmed or warning them and making yourself or your family into a target. That’s another set of really bad choices, and it made me want to have a multiple choice test instead of yes-or-no answers. I liked how the storytellers wove in the consequences to choices well, but I don’t feel like they set up enough threads to make it feel like I had some really intelligent choices to make. I was just offered a set of bad options or choices with very unpredictable consequences. That ultimately made me care a little less about each choice.
Exploring different endings
Once you’re finished with the game, you can replay chapters by selecting “load another save” You can also make a different choice within an existing save. At the end of each chapter, you can see the decision tree that you followed with your choices, and you can also see where a decision could lead to much longer story branches.
The game has accessibility features such as text to speech and speech to text for voice chat, subtitles for gameplay with adjustable sizes and colors, and gameplay adaptations such as extending Quick Time Events or Override timers.
As Dusk Falls is a valiant attempt to tell a good crime drama where actions have consequences. The story went on a lot longer than I expected, as the tense moments at the motel spawned a lot of different threads — both flash forwards and flashbacks — that I didn’t expect. But ultimately the tale failed to move me in the way that I had hoped for. The characters were caught in circumstances where they had nothing but bad choices, and it just made me think that the dumbest thing they did was to allow themselves to be caught in those circumstances. In that way, I don’t think the storytellers succeeded in created the empathy for characters on both sides of the events that they wanted. I would like to see more from this talented studio. But so far the story feels more like a TV show than a stellar movie, and more like a soap opera than a memorable drama.
Rating: Three stars out of five.
I played the game on the Xbox Series X game console. Microsoft gave me a copy of the the title for the purpose of this review.
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