Dustborn Header
Image via Spotlight by Quantic Dream

Dustborn might not be something you want to take on a road trip

Can I get a sound check?

I hadn’t really heard of Dustborn, one of the games set to be published by Spotlight by Quantic Dreams, the oddly named publishing arm of the developers of Heavy Rain and Detroit: Become Human. Which is strange because, while it’s not dead center of the target of things I like to play, it’s near enough.

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It’s a road trip across an alternate reality United States with a traveling band of diverse misfits. It includes a narrative focus with spots of combat to break things up. There’s also a social aspect that simulates what I imagine it’s like to have friends. 

But while I played through the lengthy preview, I kept thinking to myself, “I hope this slice isn’t a good representation of the full game.”

Dustborn band photo
Image via Quantic Dream

You play as Pax, who is easily the least colorful member of the band. The group is headed across the American Republic, and now that I think about it, I’m not sure why. The information on the games says they’re smuggling a package, but I don’t recall it ever being shown or mentioned. One of the earliest moments in the game sees the tour bus getting stolen, but I don’t remember anyone saying, “Oh no, the package is on board.”

Dustborn seems to be set up where each stop on the road is its own chapter. In the preview, you can look back at the previous chapter and try to absorb what had happened in the brief time that it’s available. There’s also an introduction comic, which I definitely read, and I still didn’t really know what was going on. The lack of context is something that dogged me throughout.

For example, it really seems to be built on the idea that you care about the characters. There’s one in particular, Pax’s sister, who is belligerent, and without really knowing why she’s so hostile, it’s hard to tolerate. It’s probably explained in the previous chapter, but in the demo, I’m only treated to hostility. Some of the backstory gets revealed over time, but if there’s a real emotional center to the relationship, it probably happened off-screen. Probably.

I’m not sure I’m convinced. You meet another character, Eli, during this chapter. A former desert raider who is looking for the friend he lost after the weird, experimental underground school he attended was shut down. He’s apparently a former desert raider, but later on, it sounds like it was maybe for a week. He doesn’t have much to go on in terms of finding his lost friend, which I guess means we’re waiting for serendipity or deus ex machina. I’m simplifying it, but what I’m saying is: It’s not a very good character introduction.

It also makes the constant banter difficult to listen to. Unless you’re sliding up right beside a character to have a deep, eye-contact-y discussion, the exchanges are light remarks about what is going on. It seems like they’re trying to be realistic to how actual people would interact. If that’s the case, all these characters are severely deficient in charm.

The banter extends to combat, and that’s where it’s most vexing. They’ll be talking about something, but all the while, characters will call out their moves and taunts. Every time they do, it interrupts whatever the main conversation is, and it will start the last part of the dialogue over. So not only are the characters talking over each other, but portions of dialogue are being repeated. The cacophony is so grating while trying to focus on the combat. It’s like trying to play some flow-state concentration-dependent fighting game while your spouse yells from the other room, asking where they left their belt.

Image via Spotlight by Quantic Dream

The combat itself doesn’t feel terrible, but it does feel token. Enemies will often just group up on you so you can swat them back with Pax’s bat. There are “VOX” powers, which is what makes the central cast different from normal people. The VOX powers do a variety of poorly explained things, and it can be difficult to really see their effect. It’s hard to see if they’re even worthwhile in the chaos of a fight.

The fights themselves lack any real danger, since Dustborn constantly undermines them by making the antagonists (of this chapter) as goofy as possible. They’re typical Mad Max motorized raiders, but they’re really nice once you get to know them. Oh, they definitely still rob people, but you should definitely put on a concert for them after you beat them up.

The demo ended with all the characters around a campfire, and while they bantered about something, I realized I just didn’t care what they were saying. I wondered what the point was, as they made jokes bereft of amusement. When the mouths stopped, I figured out how to get to my feet, walked onto the bus, and watched as the nearly three hours I spent playing Dustborn got summed up on two comic pages.

Dustborn at a diner
Image via Spotlight by Quantic Dream

If there’s one thing that Dustborn seems to do well, it is during the more investigative scenes, where you look around and decide how to proceed. Certain problems can be solved in different ways and involve different characters. Whether this has any sort of major impact on the narrative has yet to be seen, but on a scene-by-scene basis, it’s appreciable.

Aside from that, it depends on how optimistic you are. It’s entirely and completely possible that the demo removes too much context to be effective. If the characters are introduced with enough emotional depth, the problems with their interactions won’t be so pronounced. Maybe when you get into fighting the game’s main antagonists, the combat will be more meaningful. Maybe songs that you gain later in the game are easier to listen to. It’s all possible.

However, what I’ve seen so far isn’t encouraging. A remaining possibility is that Dustborn isn’t for me. Some may click better with the game’s misfits and enjoy the social interactions more. I can’t really speak to that. For me, I found it borderline aggravating. I was barely able to convince myself to finish the demo. I don’t think I’ll attend this concert when it launches in August on PC and consoles.

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Image of Zoey Handley
Zoey Handley
Staff Writer - Zoey is a gaming gadabout. She got her start blogging with the community in 2018 and hit the front page soon after. Normally found exploring indie experiments and retro libraries, she does her best to remain chronically uncool.