Dustborn Hands-On Preview: PAX East 2024

As I approached the Dustborn booth, I wasn’t certain what to expect. I enjoyed The Longest Journey series from…well…1999 through 2016 and clearly am accustomed to waiting patiently based on those release dates. Still, I’d heard little information about Dustborn until now and wanted some form of confirmation that it was real. As I was wrapped up in these thoughts, I looked up toward the booth and saw a photo op station with some very kawaii folk beating on an inflatable robot with inflatable baseball bats.

The more I reflect, the more I think this surreal(ish) moment sets the tone. Dustborn, after all, is firmly centered in an alternate-future United States after an unspecified disinformation apocalypse has fractured the nation, caused all sorts of dangerous factions to rise, and resistance to form. Words have extreme power in this setting, to the point where certain individuals have developed the ability to influence reality and weaponize language when speaking. They’re called Anomals, and they typically have to hide these abilities to avoid notice from the oppressive powers that be.

Enter a rag-tag crew in search of a better life, led by player character (and powerful Anomal), Pax. Before the game demo proper, players received a short physical comic book — included in the Dustborn physical edition — to explain events immediately preceding the game. It establishes Pax’s frustration at life in Pacifica and her attempts to rally her found family to make a change. It ends with Pax agreeing to undertake the game’s dangerous heist/road trip. I’d say it’s not essential to enjoy or play the game, but it does provide context, was a great way to spend time for those waiting, and was a seamless tie-in to the demo itself due to using a consistent artistic style.

Things do not go as planned for Pax et al., and your hefty goal in the game includes escaping techno-cultists in isolated Pacifica (California) and an oppressive police force called Justice to flee toward the freedom of Nova Scotia and fulfill your obligations. And what better way to accomplish this than using the group’s musical talents to front (but is it really, though, with all the practice they put into it?) as a punk band? The crew’s double life is aptly portrayed in a comic book art style that is beautiful to behold, especially when drawn portions and game environments blend seamlessly. There is even a planned option to compile your individual game choices and results into a comic book format so you can share your adventure when you finish.

Dustborn honestly looks like a Telltale game, but more stylish. Fitting, since the game’s concept is for the story to function like an interactive comic book, and similar to Telltale, the choices you make and relationships you forge influence everyone’s endings. You complete that journey through a combination of plot events, battles, band performance segments, and opportunities to foster relationships with your bandmates to craft Shouts and Vox. Shouts and Vox are the Anomal-powered words you can employ in battle and conversation, respectively. I always enjoyed how Dreamfall Chapters felt like a more robust Telltale title with more meaningful and varied actions in QTE-type segments and greater freedom in crafting relationships among characters than dialogue options. Dustborn appears to extrapolate this trend with even more diverse gameplay options, as reflected in the four segments of the demo.

Dustborn Gameplay

The first demo segment occurs as your group’s bus gets repaired in a shop. Something goes wrong with the technology controlling the jack, resulting in a tense situation where you issue actions to the appropriate bandmates so they can use their Anomal powers while you locate the source of the trouble and work to stabilize the situation. The scene played out in an interactive but not stressful series of QTE-like button presses to spur your teammates into action mixed with some environmental investigation. The gameplay was responsive and smooth, and the camerawork was impressive. I appreciated how it centered on essential points of the scenes but also let me freely look around to examine details, even during conversations.

The second segment was an example of gameplay while the crew was on the road. First, there was a quiet moment in the van for Pax to interact with her friends, and just as I was appreciating Dustborn‘s commitment to representation and diversity in characters, the quiet scene got interrupted by Justice robot officers. They demand proof that you’re a traveling music act in the form of a performance, and it’s rhythm game time! The group performed a song called “We’re the Dustborn,” and I can’t get over how intuitive the controls were. The AI design for the band segments is very smart; each button is represented on the screen in the correct orientation to your controller, with a background effect telling you which button is coming up next before the marker floats to the center to time your button press. Despite this, I admit I needed more practice to truly jam. At least we made it through our first performance, though!

This sequence also showcased some excellent attention to detail as well. Talking to Pax’s friends taught me more about the world, like how Marilyn Monroe was a prominent political figure who is still around at the age of 102. The bus also has a paper map out on a table — the same map seen earlier in a cutscene showing the layout of the Divided States of America. But this map is also the in-game map where you plot your road trip and choose locations, so the continuity between “cutscene object” and “actual gameplay element” is clever.

The next segment was a full-on 360-degree battle to get a feel for combat. The demo gave a quick background on how Pax and Sai have fought together and guided me through performing a combination attack, with Pax freezing the Justice robots in place while Sai knocked them down. There’s also ample time to learn how Pax’s primary weapon—her bat—controls, and it’s a lot of fun to use. Things escalate after that: Justice has a helicopter that your crew needs to get rid of, so the game introduces you to additional bat features beyond that it’s magnetically controlled via a glove and can function like a boomerang. Thankfully, I managed to time my button presses to hit a home run and destroy the helicopter.

The last segment of the demo was character-oriented and delved into Pax’s past by introducing some of her family. You learn that she was sent away for everyone’s protection (probably due to her Anomal powers) and had been out of contact with Zee, her sibling, which understandably causes pain and strife. This sequence showcased Dustborn‘s systems for tracking and changing Pax’s relationships with party and non-party characters. Some were expected, like the notification that Annie’s trust level in the group had changed or the subtle anime/emoji icons (like 💢 and 💦) that appeared over peoples’ heads to show their reactions. There were also other, more enigmatic indicators with titles like “The Pragmatist” that included cute animated comic-style drawings of the characters. I can’t wait to see what exactly those mean!

And just like that, I was left with these impressive pieces to interpret and place. While I am enthusiastic about what I saw and played and believe it has the potential to live up to Red Thread Games‘ mission to “create games with soul for a global and diverse audience of players who love stories,” I am curious how the game will feel when all these elements exist together.

Still, I can confidently say that I’m packing my bags and ready to buckle up and hit the road when Dustborn releases on August 20th for PC (Steam and EGS), PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S. The digital edition will be $29.99 USD, while the physical edition will retail for $39.99. If you want to delve deeper into Dustborn, I encourage you to check out their panel from PAX East, “The Power of Words: A Conversation with the Voices of Dustborn,” embedded below!

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