Review: Dusk Diver

23 Oct 2019

At first glance, Dusk Diver looks like a pretty decent anime beat-em-up featuring a female protagonist. This is incorrect. It is a beat-em-up, but it actually comes from Taiwan, with one of its big call-outs being that it has accurately modeled a popular shopping section of Taipei down to even replicating some of the businesses found within the specific region.

This is something that always fascinates me; much of what is easily accessible to US gamers are games made in the US or Japan, with the occasional Korean MMO or European title in the mix. Taipei, on the other hand, has an entirely different set of cultural assumptions – different goals from different artists putting together a very different set of ideas about what games can be. Dusk Diver further leans in on that by being a beat-em-up that is also very consciously aping a specific style of anime (despite, again, not being Japanese), adapting it for the different location. And, in some ways, that gives the whole production some quirky charms right out of the box.

Dusk Diver is releasing on October 24th after spending time in Early Access for PC via Steam. The almost-final Steam build was played for this review.

My Hair is on Fire

Mild-mannered high school student Yumo is meeting her friend Yusha at Taipei’s famous Ximending district, mostly to amble about and eat things because Yusha is a bit of a glutton. Once they arrive, however, Yumo and Yusha are pulling into a strange dark mirror of Ximending and saved by a bearded man named Leo, who looks like a gangster but is actually a tiny stone statue. He is one of the Kunlun, the guardians of Ximending, defending it from an invasion of the Chaos Beasts occupying the shadow realm of Youshanding. But Yumo crossing over has bound her to the Kunlun, making her their new flaming-haired avatar to beat back the Chaos Beasts.

If you read all of that and immediately had an image in your head of a season-length show in which the gang slowly expands for a few episodes, has some one-off goofy adventures for a bit, and then moves into the real serious-business storytelling toward the back end… well, congratulations! You’ve figured out the level that the game’s story is operating at. And just like that premise might imply, Yumo’s co-workers quickly encompass two handsome men, one beautiful lady, a strange antagonist, and the small ceramic bear who runs the convenience store where Yumo works as a cover.

It is all very stupid. It is also all the exact sort of very stupid that I love. The story recognizes that it’s all silly and doesn’t waste time trying to not be silly, instead leaning in on the stock types and giving each of the characters outsized exaggerations of personalities rather than nuanced characterization. And it works, in no small part because the game knows this is not super-serious, even if the characters in-universe don’t know that.

What does hurt the story a bit is the fact that the translation is…well, rough would be the charitable thing to say. There are lots of word choices and strange turns of phrase that mark the game as having been translated without being localized very well. Everything’s just a wee bit off, including characters treating completely nonsensical phrasings as if they’re altogether normal ways for people to talk.

None of this bothered me in the least, though. Indeed, it brought to mind earlier days of gaming, side-scrolling beat-em-ups where you could tell that no one worried too much if the text didn’t make perfect sense because the thrust of the game was hitting dudes. It felt, in short, like a very conscious throwback to an older time of gaming, even if it wasn’t entirely intentional.

Still, it sort of makes you hope that the gameplay is also a firm throwback, doesn’t it?

I Watched TV and Now I Can Fight Things

Good news! The gameplay is a big smashy mess of thumping on things with only the barest added wrinkles in it, and it works exactly the right way for that.

Mechanically, Dusk Diver is very much of the lighter-and-floatier style of combat. Your big goal is amassing a nice long combo, but getting hit doesn’t knock you out of your combo, so you can often recover and get back to thrashing at huge numbers of enemies. And you have many ways to do exactly that. Yumo has access to the stock-standard light and heavy attack, with heavy attacks ending her combo, light attacks comboing up to five hits, and various move upgrades allowing her to string more heavy attacks together accordingly.

Yumo can also jump (with a few extra airborne attacks) and dodge quickly in any direction, with a special time-slowing “Just Dodge” mechanic rewarding close dodge timing. That part only comes up rarely, since this is much more a game about attacking than dodging; keeping up the pressure often allows you to shut down incoming attacks outright. She can also summon one of the three Kunlun guardians to provide a momentary assault on the horde of enemies she’s smashing, with each of the three having a distinct weapon and attack pattern that is further altered by where she is in her melee combo at the time.

If all of that wasn’t enough, she can also summon a guardian’s weapon to unleash her own powerful attack to wipe out a larger area, and she can switch into a powerful magical girl mode in which she builds up resources for summons much faster, gains access to a special finishing move, and hits harder. Oh, and she can use a restorative item along the way, if she needs one.

This probably sounds like it’s going to make combat kind of easy, and, well…it is. But it’s easy in that fun way wherein playing aggressively tends to get you through most fights, yet you’re never assured of victory. You very decidedly can get overwhelmed if you’re not making good use of your tools to break down the enormous hordes of Chaos Beasts swarming you, and there’s something eminently satisfying in watching your combo count tick past 300.

The actual combat takes place in Youshanding, which is a fairly visually uninteresting place in that it’s mostly boxes with some glowy bits. However, this honestly works out largely all right. Because everything is rendered in stark colors, it’s easy to pick out different elements in the swarm of enemies, and the visuals of Youshanding are at least stylish if not particularly taxing.

Missions are short and replayable from your central hub in the convenience store, either for more resources or just to pick up Dragon Shards you missed on your first playthrough. Each mission contains three of these shards, a few more are scattered in Ximending, and each subsequent mission requires amassing even more of the shards. This can be a bit obnoxious at first, especially since many times you’ll be able to find two of the three shards but miss the last one, and the first few levels can make it easy to be one or two shards shy. Once you get a little more progress in, it’s easy to outpace the required shards as you go.

The missions do nicely keep up that feeling of just having one more round of things. Since they tend to top out at about ten minutes, there’s always that nudge to just push through and keep going a little bit longer. It also works well if you’re playing in an episodic fashion, since you can clear each segment without too much time investment.

Equally fortunate is that the game’s keyboard controls feel crisp and responsive; I never felt like I was having trouble getting Yumo to do what I wanted, selecting the different Guardians feels intuitive, and both movement and camera controls work well. My controller was having some issues, but the general setup was also perfectly functional, although a bit lacking in remapping functionality.

My Part-Time Job is Run by a Ceramic Bear

While the game does lean hard on an aesthetic of glowing lights against black backgrounds, there’s something immediately entertaining about the vaguely Tron-like appearance in what is supposedly a game all about spiritual warfare. It feels like the designers were mostly concerned with what looked cool rather than explaining how it all fit together and, frankly, that works perfectly with the game’s established feel.

Less forgivable is the music, which ranges from forgettable to just plain unpleasant. It never reaches the level of being truly noxious or unbearable, but none of it feels like anything so much as “there is music in this game, because there is always music in games.” The most memorable tunes are the title screen bit and the convenience store’s bubbly background, both of which are pretty middling but calmingly so.

Other sounds are less bothersome. Yumo’s punches and kicks connect with satisfying thumps and, while the voice acting is in a language I don’t actually speak, it’s still all fun to hear. There’s a lot of good work on subtle inflection, giving characters distinctive personalities, like Bahet’s air of aloof exhaustion and Viada’s bubbly enthusiasm as you summon them.

The translation, as noted, is a bit rough. Some things aren’t explained particularly well as a result, like how the game’s food system works or the optional little events with your co-workers. That makes parts of the game a bit harder to puzzle out than perhaps they need to be.

The game also does feature a leveling system, of sorts, but it’s all a bit perfunctory and is more about which upgrades you want first rather than developing a unique character build. Plan your expectations accordingly.

Messy, Good Fun

It should be clear from all of this that Dusk Diver is hardly a masterpiece. What it is, however, is solid. It’s charmingly silly in its own weird way, full of characters that may not be endlessly memorable but are decidedly fun, and a central set of mechanics that enable you to have fun beating the snot out of little beasties to your heart’s content.

Sometimes, there’s a secret alchemy or a real trick to a game. Other times, there really isn’t. But it’s not a failing by any means for the game to aim resolutely at being something and then hit that mark well. There are lots of things that could make Dusk Diver better, like a better translation or a more consequential story, but it clearly wants to be exactly what it is, and it doesn’t pretend at being anything more than that.

Is it a must-play? No, but the people who are going to like it are going to like it a lot. If you watch the game’s trailer and think that it looks like fun, you are probably going to enjoy the heck out of it, and you should probably give it a gander even if you don’t necessarily expect to be taken in. It’s a bit messy, a bit flabby, and far from perfect… but it’s a charming little game for all of that.

~ Final Score: 7/10 ~

Review copy provided by JFi Games for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Feature image courtesy of JFi Games.