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Dustborn Preview – A Road Trip About Friendship, Rocking Out And Weaponised Words

Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will fuck me up

I’m at a gas station in the middle of nowhere with my punk rock bandmates after our robot bus driver did a runner and abandoned us. Thankfully, the leader of the group Theo installed a tracker on the bus but the range is limited, so we need to catch up with it sooner rather than later. After a conversation with the fuel station attendant (a robot who’s pining for his long-lost robot love), it’s apparent that we need to lure a gang of rough bikers (known as Riders) to our location to try and get back to our bus, wherever it may be.

A few minutes and a Molotov cocktail later, Riders show up, and here I am given the option of taking them on or running away. I choose the former, eager to get a look at the game’s combat and my abilities. You see, you play as Pax – someone known as an Anomal. Anomal’s are people with the ability to weaponise language – those who can use words to hurt, manipulate and motivate others.

This is Dustborn from Red Thread Games, a third-person action-adventure that fuses elements of Life is Strange, Detroit: Become Human, and…Guitar Hero with an incredible cel-shaded comic book art style. Trust me, it’ll make sense when we unpack it. Set in 2030 in what is now known as the Divided States of America, Pax is part of a travelling (and undercover) punk rock band tasked with transporting a package across the country, now controlled by the authoritarian Justice. Recently I played through a roughly 90-minute preview build that gave me access to an early story mission and a look at what Red Thread Games is going for with Dustborn.

As a Red Thread Games title, the narrative is a big focus, and a large part of the preview was spent engaging in dialogue, either with my bandmates or other characters in the world. Pax will have multiple dialogue paths to follow when chatting with other characters, some more integral to the story’s progression, while others will open up as conversation unfolds, and the choices you make will impact your relationships with your bandmates. Following up on every talking point is recommended, as doing so will yield more information about what you need to do and how to go about it. For example, when speaking with Henry (the fuel station robot), I learned that Riders frequent the fuel station to steal booze and party in the car park, and without spelling it out for you, I discovered how to attract the Riders to my location.

What makes Dustborn’s narrative even more interesting and unique is the diverse cast of characters led by a powerful female protagonist. There’s a refreshingly strong queer and female presence – Red Threads doesn’t shy away from the cast of characters it wants to showcase, and it’s a cast that has some fantastic chemistry thanks to some great writing and voice acting. Further forging their identity, each of Pax’s bandmates has their own abilities and personality. Sai is Pax’s best friend and can use her powers to enhance her brute strength to move objects, Noam, Pax’s on-again-off-again lover, has the power of emotional manipulation, while Ziggy, Pax’s sister is a skilled mechanic who can travel through solid objects, and Theo is the crew’s tech-savvy member.

But back to the fight with the group of Riders. Combat encounters are essentially mini arenas that task you with defeating waves of enemies. At Pax’s disposal is a baseball bat (which can be upgraded) for hack ‘n’ slash combat and her Vox abilities (words). It’s an interesting and unique mix, but how does it translate into gameplay?

There’s a hint of modern God of War about the combat, and much like how Kratos relies on his trusty Leviathan axe, Pax’s baseball bat is her main modus operandi for enemy elimination. Pax has one basic attack that can be used, as well as the ability to throw her bat like a boomerang (or Leviathan axe) and a special-like attack that is on a timer and can be used after a successful QTE sequence. Shouts are Pax’s word abilities. Some are self-explanatory, such as Push and Block, while others such as Discord will turn enemies on one another, and Bully will convince enemies to fall in line for a nice easy takedown. Shouts are on a meter, which will fill up by bashing enemies with your bat, meaning that they couldn’t be chained together, at least during my hands on, however you can utilise your bandmates for a combo attack.

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Granted I’ve only played a snippet of what the game offers, but combat definitely felt like the weakest aspect of Dustborn. It felt clunky and not overly satisfying at times, and the constant chatter between you and your bandmates does make it a little hard to follow what’s being said while trying to focus on who’s attacking you.

Words are not only useful in combat though, with Pax able to use her powers in conversation to her advantage. One sequence saw our group faced with a person with a gun threatening to use it. I decided to tell him that aliens were out to get him – probably the wrong choice in hindsight but one of my crew was there to jump in and spare my blushes.

The back half of the preview sees Pax and co. explore an underground facility. Here we have a lot more time to explore and for Pax to use her ME-EM, a handheld device that allows her to record lost echoes in the world. It’s never really explained what echoes are, but my understanding is they’re fragmented parts of events that occurred in the past. Capture enough echoes and you’ll have access to the mini-game; complete the mini-game and you’ll unlock a new Vox ability to use in combat or conversation.

After a successful foray into the underground facility, Pax and her companions decide to dust off a new tune, and it’s here we’re introduced to the rhythm game mechanics. Much like Guitar Hero, players will need to time button pushes to ensure the tune sounds good, while poor timing will see the song turn into a stinker. It certainly adds another layer to the Dustborn experience, one that helps tie in that musical aspect, and it’s simple enough without really getting in the way if rhythm games aren’t your thing. After the performance, the group hang around a campfire, and it’s here, thanks to some down time that we get to know our cast of misfits just a little bit better. I won’t go into detail here, but it’s these moments where Pax can learn a lot, and enhance or hurt her relationships with her bandmates.

As a big fan of Red Thread’s previous work and someone keen on Dustborn since it was first announced in 2020, it was great to finally understand how the unique idea of weaponising words will play once controller is in hand. Combat isn’t as revolutionary or satisfying as I hoped, but the intriguing story and characters and the dynamic of it all have more than piqued my interest. Dustborn may not be one of the biggest games to launch in 2024, but it’s certainly shaping up as one of the most unique and entertaining, and I can’t wait to join this band of misfits on their adventure this August.

Previewed on PC // Preview code supplied by publisher

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Written By Zach Jackson

Despite a childhood playing survival horrors, point and clicks and beat ’em ups, these days Zach tries to convince people that Homefront: The Revolution is a good game while pining for a sequel to The Order: 1886 and a live-action Treasure Planet film. Carlton, Burnley FC & SJ Sharks fan. Get around him on Twitter @tightinthejorts

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