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[PAX East] A silly, irreverent game with some heart behind it...

The expo hall at PAX East 2024 was filled to the brim with playable demos and enthusiastic devs, many of whom had traveled across the world to show off their newest projects. With only two full days to spare, I hadn't initially planned to stray far off my prearranged path. However, after sitting in on the Future Games Show and being completely sucked in by Dustborn's potential, compared to the conversely underwhelming selection of game trailers that filled out the rest of the trailer showcase, I knew I had to track down this game to its booth in the expo hall.

A case of identity

There's no beating around the bush. Dustborn is a very strange game, whose very identity feels like a crisscross of several other notable games all rolled into one. You have the eccentric irreverent humor and dry social commentary of Gearbox's Borderlands, the interactive choice-based narrative mechanics and Americana aesthetical influences of Life is Strange, and yet there nevertheless remains an additional indescribable X factor that remains distinctly Dustborn.

The hands-on demo which PAX East 2024 participants got to play contained what averaged out to be a 15-minute or so sampling of what appeared to be early-game content. Dustborn is very clearly one of those games that players will either love wholeheartedly, or alternatively view it as cringey and irritating. It never directly goes out of its way to be divisive, but its abrasive nature is definitely an acquired taste.

Play for your life...

Within the first two minutes, you are presented with this dark dystopian narrative tone, (contrasted visually with beautifully rustic North American landscapes,) where an authoritarian government, policed by cybernetic militant forces which all bear a more-than-passing resemblance to Doctor Who's cybermen, control every aspect of society's daily life.

Within seconds of being introduced to this obvious enemy faction, and informing them that you are merely a travelling musical band, you suddenly and jarringly get hurled into a music rhythm minigame, where if you don't match the beats well enough and deliver a credible band performance, you and your friends implicitly will be lined up and shot. If you have a particularly dark sense of humor like I do, this kind of absurdity is downright hilarious. But if you take interactions like this merely at face value, it will be hard for you to get into what this game has to offer.

Choice matters, sometimes...

Here is where the obvious parallels to Telltale's The Walking Dead, or DontNod's Life is Strange come into play. There will be a multitude of situations, major and minor, where your character is given the opportunity to respond to what's being said around them. Depending on how you phrase your responses, there will be notable differences in response, although the overall theme or flavour of the discussions appears to remain mostly the same.

Interestingly, the developers made these dialogue responses time-sensitive, explicitly giving the player the option to choose not to respond, should they wish to. Indeed, sometimes saying nothing ends up being the best thing you can do, on a case-by-case basis. Having played the demo twice, it was interesting to see how the other characters would react when I decided not to take action.

Picking a fight

Combat is not necessarily the game's main focus, and nor is it necessarily the most well-executed of the game's mechanics. You do have light and heavy attacks, a block button, and the ability to counter, as well as to deal powerful charged attacks with their own unique animations.

Enemy ragdolls going flying in response to even a moderately-strong final blow can be quite satisfying, although not enough to forgive the overall clunky and unwieldy nature of the overall combat system. Enemy targeting also isn't particularly easy, as the indicator will frequently snap away to focus on another enemy instead, if said second enemy happens to be moving toward you. This leads frequently to the player wildly missing hits they absolutely should have landed.

Finding your voice

The voice acting here is one of the game's most obvious drawbacks. There's no getting around it. The voice performances vary between being merely unremarkable to being unbelievably awful and mailed-in. As essentially an AA-scale game, one shouldn't necessarily expect Academy Award-winning performances from the cast.

However, some of the performances here, particularly among the side characters and extras, feel like something out of a local high school drama class' audition try-outs. If the rest of the game sounds like this, there might be some gritting of teeth.


Dustborn presents a lot of potential, and it'll be interesting to see if the developers over at Red Thread Games can execute cleanly on their creative vision. Either way, players won't have long to wait before Dustborn storms its way onto Steam later this year on August 20th.

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