Dustborn received its world premiere at the Future Game Show back in 2020, when it teased its gorgeous cel-shaded, Borderlands-like art style for the very first time. As a story-driven action adventure game about hope, friendship, love, and "the power of words", those first glimpses of Red Thread Games' latest outing whet the palette for an action game that promised to play like Telltale's The Walking Dead series, with the narrative nous of something like Kentucky Route Zero.
Fast forward three years, and although still without a concrete release date – beyond its tentative and long-held "coming soon" billing – Dustborn is still cooking up a storm. Our latest glimpse, showcased at Gamescom 2023 Opening Night Live, took a deeper dive into the games narrative and combat workings, painting a broader picture of what we can expect from this thoughtful tale where words truly have consequences.
Words of mouth
Set in the not too distant future, Dustborn unfolds in the year 2030 following a seemingly cataclysmic event named the Broadcast. You play as Pax – an ex-con, an outcast, a con-artist, and the bearer of superhuman powers apparently fuelled by disinformation – and are joined ragtag gang of like-minded nomads-meets-amateur musicians traveling across America by bus in order to deliver a package.
To make things more complicated, Pax is four months pregnant, and with the fanatical 'Puritans' watching her every move – an authoritarian police force who dress like extras in a Beastie Boys video – making the proposed delivery isn't going to be easy. Where possible, you'll rely on your silver tongue to manipulate situations and individuals in order to get what you want; but in some instances, you'll be forced to throw down. That's where your motley crew's idiosyncratic powers come into play. Each with their own intriguing backstory, defined personality, and supernatural repertoire, it's your job as their leader to guide them into battle and put their area of expertise to best use.
"Words have power," reads Dustborn's Steam page to this end. "Like, actual power. Fight your pursuers with weaponized words, and use wordcraft in conversations to manipulate people with the power of disinformation. Discover, record and remix arcane Echoes to craft new words, and learn to wield a lingual arsenal against enemies… and friends. Converse with your crew and other characters along the road through a dynamic and emotionally reactive branching conversation system, where your choices shape relationships."
In motion, the section of hands-off gameplay footage I'm shown depicts the protagonist and the gang driving across the game's dystopian near-futurescape – from the stifling Corporate Republic of Pacifica to the Free Nation of Nova Scotia – on a bus, in the guise of a traveling punk rock band. While making a pit stop, the crew's cover is blown, and the Puritans move in, circling the crew with their backs to the wall, and rappelling in from helicopters above.
Using a seemingly incongruous but nevertheless neat combination of Skyrim-like shouts, over-the-top wrestling moves – such as physics-defying leg drops – and more traditional melee via baseball bats and various other blunt instruments, the crew kicks their aggressors' asses, hightails it back to the bus, and takes off once more on the open road.
To that end, Dustborn's Steam page adds: "Explore pit-stops across America, from a former government re-education camp in the Oregon wilderness, to a decommissioned school for gifted children in Nevada; from an abandoned Utah mall to the derelict robot factories of Detroit — and through the mysterious Great Plains Exclusion Zone, where strange experiments take place in the ashes of the Broadcast."
With all of that, Dustborn poses some interesting ideas and tweaks to otherwise familiar formulas. Developer Red Thread Games' previous experience in the Dreamfall series, The Longest Journey and The Secret World shines through, while its visual cues from graphic novels and the cel-shaded games of old adds an extra layer of charm to its warm but uber-cool aesthetic.
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