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Dustborn is a head-spinning genre mishmash that will divide opinion, but we can't wait for the full game. HANDS-ON PREVIEW

How do you do, fellow they/thems?

Dustborn cast
Image credit: VG247, Quantic Dream, NBC

We all have our favourite creators, be they authors, filmmakers, game directors, whose work we show up for regardless of the subject matter. Ragnar Tørnquist is, for me, one such creator: this article isn’t about the Dreamfall saga, which started an entire quarter century ago (he winced arthritically) with The Longest Journey, but I would urge anyone to seek it out, and dare them not to fall in love with the worlds he deftly conjures.

The Dreamfall saga concluded a decade ago, but you could call Dustborn a spiritual sequel. It’s a big ol’ road trip across a near-future “Divided States”, in which a bunch of super-powered misfits are high-tailing it from Pacifica (California) to Nova Scotia (Nova Scotia) in a big silver bus while undercover as a touring punk band. Like his previous works, there is a blending of science-fiction and fantasy here, this time combining cyberpunk tech with mystic shamanism in a world half inspired by Mad Max, half inspired by Tumblr culture (both a type of wasteland involving leather trousers).

Dustborn looks like quite a trip.Watch on YouTube

Yes, Dustborn is the sort of game that tells you each character’s pronouns. It’s probably the sort of game that would prefer you ask its consent before booting it up. It’s all very Modern, and though I don’t doubt its sincerity it comes off as inauthentic. I can’t figure out if it’s meant to appeal directly to the genderfluid and the neurodivergent, or if it’s more designed to annoy the exact type of person who thinks pronouns are a threat to civilization while being blithely unconcerned by the rise of fascism or climate change – both of which are strong themes in Dustborn. Before I knew of Ragnar Tørnquist’s involvement, I commented to my wife that the dialogue feels like Gen X writing for Gen Z. There’s a sort of… “how do you do fellow They/Thems” vibe that undermines it all. And though he obviously isn’t the game’s sole writer, it can’t escape one’s notice that he is 53. The penny droppeth.

The dialogue is… not for everyone. It will test most people’s tolerance for cringe. And this isn’t helped by the fact that the combat system’s special moves are built around words. The player character, Pax, is a songwriter whose ability to swing a baseball bat is augmented by her ability to use “shouts”, for all intents and purposes a form of magic that allows for self-healing and crowd control via telekinesis and mind control. In-universe, Pax keeps this power charged up with incessant chatter during battles. That’s not my criticism: the game’s enemies are constantly pointing this out and asking them politely to stop. One of their combat barks is “Girlboss!”, which probably sufficiently explains how well-meaning yet mark-missing it all is. It’s like Mass Effect if the ship was called SS Hillary Clinton.

Does anyone actually talk like this? (yes - ed). I have nearly adult children who sit at the convergence of the various demographics being portrayed, and I can’t imagine them feeling particularly represented by the way these characters opine and interact. They’re more like the kinds of caricatures that right-wing commentators dream up than the actual people they’re intended to represent.

Words being a kind of magic is a trope borrowed from wiccan tradition and also crap episodes of Doctor Who. | Image credit: Quantic Dream

And yet, Dustborn is a brilliant time. If you’re able to just accept that this is, indeed, how people talk to each other in this topsy-turvy vision of 2030s America, you’ll find the characters perfectly likeable in their various eccentricities and vulnerabilities. And there is so much for them to do here. Though this is a largely linear road trip game with a fairly rigid Telltale style narrative, in the 2-3 hours preview build we played there occurred a bewildering amount of genre convergence. It’s a point & click adventure with a canny dialogue system that allows for dynamic, physical interaction with the world space even while locked in conversation. It’s a hack & slash combat game with menu-driven special powers and party combos. And it’s a creepy exploration game with mild horror elements in which you do things like explore an empty high school full of deactivated robots in creepy poses that you could swear are watching you…and it’s a rhythm game with a bunch of original pop punk tracks that you can perform in impromptu concerts to an otherwise well-meaning biker gang whose heads you were kicking in four minutes earlier.

It’s also very inspired, as previously alluded, by BioWare. The bus is your Normandy. The campsites between missions function similarly to the off-mission ship dynamic in Mass Effect, or the camps in Dragon Age: Origins. Utilising that lovely dialogue system to strengthen your various relationships and/or romances. Bestowing your friends with gifts pilfered from the field. Practising guitar (although there’s no option, sadly, to spoil a nice evening by belting out Wonderwall or The Drugs Don’t Work). You can even elect to do the dishes on more than one occasion, in a mechanic which feels as perfunctory as shutting the fridge door in Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy. One wonders if this will lead to a good punchline in the full game.

Roads? Where we're going we definitely need roads. Flying cars are a stupid idea. | Image credit: Quantic Dream

I can’t wait to find out. Guardians is probably the most apt comparison here, actually, because it too was a decent action road trip with an ensemble cast that everyone bounced right off at reveal on account of the annoying as hell chatter. But the thing is, you and your mates all sound annoying to strangers on the bus. At the moment, we are but strangers on this bus: this gorgeously comic-book bus with its quirky crew and their guitars. I’m left intrigued by the world beyond, and immensely looking forward to the full game, secure in my trust of its heritage and how fun it is to do a big Benny Hill chase with a desert biker gang.

Dustborn pulls into the bus station on 20th of August for Playstation, Xbox, and PC.

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