Saturday, June 15, 2024

This Machine Kills Fascists (Okay, Maybe It Just Knocks Them Out...) - Dustborn Demo Microreview

In the comments to Tuesday's post, Tyler Edwards mentioned that Dustborn is "the brainchild of Ragnar Tornquist, the creator of The Secret World." I'm not sure you could exactly tell that from the demo but certainly, once you know, it makes a lot of sense. It also explains the quality of the writing, which is top-notch as is the voice acting.

Whether it would also be true to say "If you liked the Secret World, you'll love Dustborn" is a lot harder to predict from the demo and not just because it's an imponderable in the first place. The problem isn't so much trying to assess the similarities - or lack of them - between the two games. It's more the unusual format of the demo itself.

The demo, which may have been built specifically for Next Fest, is made up of four disparate segments lifted from the storyline. They do appear to be in chronological order but they aren't contiguous and there's no specific narrative continuity. Each appears to have been chosen more in the hope of demonstrating the game's mechanics than hooking you into the world or the story, although by and large the demo manages to do that too. 

The first scene is primarily about puzzle-solving. It takes place in a bus garage, where someone has managed to get themselves trapped under a bus while fixing it. You have to work out how to bring the automated lifting apparatus back online and get the mechanic out from under the bus.

I found this a difficult opening for a demo. There's not much in the way of instruction or hand-holding and it involves a lot of learning by trial and error. The scenario also seemed quite unconvincing to me, mostly because it involves a good deal of that typical adventure-game logic, where people stand around in a crisis situation not doing anything much while the player character runs around trying to do everything and the supposed crisis just stretches on and on with no objective urgency. 

Never a truer word...

I'm not saying I'd have preferred it with a timer - timers always make things worse - but it's hard to take someone seriously when they say they can't hold something up much longer when it's clear they could hold it until a week next Sunday or until you figure out the right buttons to press, whichever came sooner. I definitely would not have started the demo with this.

Things didn't improve much after that, either. The second scene demonstrates the practical musical aspect of Dustborn, namely the rhythm gameplay. I don't like rhythm games. I can do them but I find them flat-out annoying for the most part. I wasn't best pleased to be faced with a scenario where I had to hit the notes at the right time to make sure the band's ad hoc performance for some border guards at a check point didn't get them turned back or even locked up.

The actual mechanics of the rhythm game are fairly simple but for a first example, with no preparation or prior experience or chance to practice, it seemed like an unnecessarily anxiety-inducing choice for a demo intended to draw people in, not put them off. There is some suggestion from the conversation that takes place immediately after and also in the subsequent segment of the demo that the band isn't intended to perform well in this difficult situation, so it may be that how successfully the player keeps the rhythm doesn't actually make much difference. 

You really don't want to know...

I could go back and replay it a few times to see if the dialog changes depending on how well or poorly the band appears to play but ,while I'd like to know if they really did record different voice-overs to reflect varying levels of skill, I'm not going to put myself through the dumb mini-game twice to test the hypothesis. I might take a look on YouTube to see if someone else has, though.

The third sequence I enjoyed a lot more than the first two. This one's set on the tour bus and mostly involves talking to the rest of the band and the robot driver. The dialog is excellent, very naturalistic. The voice acting, as I said earlier, is really good too. 

The characters all come across clearly even in this relatively short sequence and without much in the way of backstory, since we've arrived somewhere in the middle of the narrative. I especially enjoyed the blonde-haired, English-accented Noam, who reminded me very strongly indeed of Suki Waterhouse's character in Daisy Jones and the Six

That's Noam, lounging back, reading a book about Marilyn Monroe, who's 104 now and still walks five miles every day.

The segment features a curious mechanic, where Pax, the character you play in the game, either sits down at the front of the bus, next to the robot driver, staring out at the road ahead through the windscreen, or goes to the back of the bus and sits there, looking out at the road behind. As she sits, she goes over everything that's happened in a series of reminiscences and self-reviews. 

I wasn't entirely clear if this was a necessary process or an optional extra. It felt something like the kind of internal monologue novels have relied on since the nineteenth century to give insight into the protagonist's psyche. I'm not sure I've seen that tried in a video game before and certainly not in this precise manner but I liked it.

The bus journey also features another of the rhythm mini-games as Pax tries to write a new song. This I found much easier than the live performance and a lot more enjoyable. The pace is much slower and each time you succeed, you're rewarded with a new verse. 

A bad song deserves a bad title.
The song is terrible, though. I suspect all the music will be bad. I'm not sure whoever was responsible for it can ever have heard a punk band. Or possibly any band... 1

It was at the end of this segment of the demo that I ran into a problem, one of those typical adventure game moments where you know what you need to do but can't figure out how the writer wants you to do it. That necessitated a visit to YouTube to watch how someone else figuring it out. 

It was obvious I needed to do something with the map to make the little bus icon move to the next stop on the itinerary so the sequence would end but nothing I could find would make it budge. In the end I got it to move, after seeing a video that confirmed it was possible, but even now I couldn't tell you how I did it.

That moved the needle on to the fourth and final section, which is also the longest, the most action-packed, the most dramatic and the most informative in terms of the overall narrative. Save the best 'til last, I guess. 

Plenty of time for that yet, Pax.

It comes in two parts; first a big fight and then a lengthy conversation. The fight managed to be both enjoyable and intensely irritating, which is a clever trick if you can pull it off. 

It was enjoyable mostly for a very personal reason. It was an almost-literal manifestation of my twenty-something fantasy life. 

Back when I was playing table-top games every Sunday, for half a year the campaign character I played in a long-forgotten super-hero RPG called Golden Heroes was a leather-jacketed punk-rock singer called Chainsaw. In addition to her eponymous, hi-tech chainsaw, she liked to bring along a baseball bat for the close-up work. 

Damn! I want that bat! And not just in a video game.

The final sequence in the Dustborn demo starts with Pax's estranged sister, Ziggy, giving her a super-fancy baseball bat that has all kinds of extra tricks, not least returning to the hand when thrown, like Thor's hammer. Pax falls in love with the bat and so did I. If there's a better way to fight fascists than by beating on them with a baseball bat, I don't want to hear about it.

Unfortunately, it's not quite as simple as that because games designers can never leave well enough alone. I loved the basics of combat, the way the Justice goons ragdoll around when you thrash them with the bat, the way the dronebots crash to earth when the bat hits them in mid-air...

What I didn't like were the endless, unnecessary combos and tricks the game insists you learn. The fight is also a combat tutorial and it did a pretty good job of convincing me combat in Dustborn won't be nearly as much fun as it could be, if they'd just give me the damn bat and let me get on with it.

Pax, getting all existential on that AI ass.

After the battle's won, which actually wasn't as hard as I feel it should have been, given I never really had much of a clue what I was doing, there's a long debrief with Ziggy and one of the sisters' two moms. Since we're not just in media res but floundering somewhere in mid-story with no real clue what's happened up to then, much of the nuance of the conversation most likely passed me by. Even so, it drew me in emotionally and fired up my curiosity to find out what I'd missed.

It's a solid end to a pretty good demo. I do think the episodic, dislocated nature of the segments takes quite a risk with the patience of the uncommitted Next Fest dabbler and the obvious focus on mechanics seems a little at odds with the what I take to be the narrative-led focus of the game. On balance, though, I think it does a reasonable job of selling both the concept and the execution.

I haven't mentioned much about the world-building, which is clearly going to be one of the game's strengths. You can see a lot more of that on the website, along with some indication of how good it looks, which is very. The art direction and the visuals in general are excellent, although I'm not sure I'd say exactly the same about the character animations, which look like they might need a bit of a scrub-up before launch, although since that's scheduled for 20 August, I suspect they won't be getting one.

Yeah, I guess I am too, although I might just wait for a sale...

My takeaway from just under an hour with the demo is that Dustborn is going to offer a fantastic narrative experience, whose fluidity and charm might be hobbled a little by some awkward video game mechanics and a quite likely unnecessary focus on combat and mini-games. I'm hoping much of that is a function of the way the demo has been put together and that, in context, the parts I'm dubious about will feel more organic and less artificial.

Either way, it's going on the wishlist. Whether I'll then be able to play it all the way through is another matter. I'll need to work on my fingering, that's for sure...

1 According to Copilot, the composer is Joris de Man, "two time Ivor Novello winner and Bafta-nominatee". His background and previous credits seem to be entirely in orchestral music, though, so why he would have been tapped for a punk-rock score beats me. A google search carried out by commenter Andrew Farrell indicates the person really responsible for the music in the game is Red Thread's in-house sound person, Simon Poole, although Wikipedia also mentions the game as something Leigh Phillips may have worked on. There's a lengthy discussion in the comment thread if further details are needed.


  1. My impressions were pretty similar to yours. I've been looking forward to this game for a long time, but I found the emphasis on quick time events and rhythm mini-games (both of which I suck at) frustrating. And yeah, for a game all about music, the music is pretty bad.

    Also, I found the constant chattering during combat really distracting. Apparently Pax has to banter for her voice powers to work, which... okay, I guess, but it's so fast and so constant, and there's also voice lines from the other NPCs, and additional lines when Pax does her special attacks, leading to characters frequently talking over each other and in some cases Pax talking over *herself.* I found it a pretty severe case of sensory overload, especially when coupled with trying to learn the combat mechanics.

    Also, did those quick time events you trigger with Q actually do anything meaningful? They have a cooldown, so I figured they'd be big nukes, but it felt like they weren't much more effective than just using that time to attack normally.

    On the plus side, the art design is gorgeous, and the alternate history world-building is pretty interesting (although turning Marilyn Monroe into a fascist icon seems a bit unfair to the poor girl). It's still on my wishlist, but I think I've downgraded it from an automatic day one purchase to something I'll pick up on sale.

    1. I share all of your additional concerns. I nearly mentioned the overlapping chat in combat, which is very annoying, but the post was long enough already. I tried to do all the special attacks I was told to do but no, I couldn't really tell if they made much difference. Hitting things with the bat seemed to be enough most of the time and also felt a lot more natural.

      I'm not 100% sure what was going on with the Marilyn thing. Noam seemed positively infatuated with her and no-one else seemed to care or, indeed, know who she was. Without more context I couldn't really place where Monroe or for that matter JFK stood in the context of the game's version of America. I also got the feeling "Fascist" was getting thrown around in just the way a bunch of twenty-somethings bantering would be likely to uis it, namely loosely and not necessarily with much meaning.

      I think we're going to have to wait for the whole thing to find out exactly who the good guys and bad guys in the New America might be, if indeed there are any. I just hope the game has a Story Mode for people who can't be doing with all that fiddly mini-game nonsense.

  2. As far as I can tell, the list of pages that mention Joris de Man and Dustborn is: this one. Stop repeating AI?
    Although, he does have some work in videogames under his belt - he did the soundtrack for Horizon: Forbidden West.

    1. Thanks for that! I did a fair amount of searching before I asked Copilot but I couldn't find any music credits for Dustborn, which seems odd for a music game. There are credits at the end of the demo but I closed it before they finished thinking it would be quicker to look on the website. There are no credits at all on the website.

      Copilot references all its sources and the link for Joris de Man went to a bio with his video game credits, including HFW. It didn't mention Dustborn though. I couldn't cross-reference it with anything else because as you point out, there isn't anything else but I could have had another AI check Copilot's work. I used to do that but I thought we were past that phase. Clearly not.

      I just asked Google's Gemini who is credited with the music for Dustborn and it said "An official announcement regarding the composer for the video game "Dustborn" hasn't been revealed yet." It also said "The game's website and publicly available information sources like trailers don't credit a composer" so score one for Gemini. It didn't know the answer but at least it disn't make something up.

      Of course, it may turn out that de Man did write the music after all. I probably ought to go back to the demo and let the full credits run.Maybe it says something there. Not if I have to play through the whole thing again though.

    2. Sorry, that was me on my laptop, not signed in...

    3. Googling "Dustborn composer" seems to suggest it's Simon Poole, and a little (okay, a lot) further down the results, there's this:
      Though it is 4 years, old, things could have changed since then (and of course now is probably one of the times that there's more and more information coming online from interviews, now they're in the next fest).
      It does look nice - hope it maintains the quality between the parts shown.

    4. Aha! Since he's the guy who did the music for all their other games and The Secret World, which was the title the devs had been engaged with when the Red Thread splintered away from Funcom into a separate studio, that seems extremely likely.

      I have to say I'm more interested now in why that information wasn't found by either of the AIs than I am in knowing who's doing the music now. It's not going to make the really quite bad music in the game any better, knowing who composed it, but it does suggest we're not even at the point where we can trust an AI to gather information from google search reliably, which was a point I did think we'd reached.

      If you literally google just "Dustborn composer" with no other paramaters it puts Simon Poole's own Twitter feed at the very top, with a recent tweet where he says Dustborn is the game he's been "slaving over" so it's definitely him. It also finds a couple more references to him from 2020, all of this on the first page so it's hard to see why the AIs missed it.

      Google also has a link to a Wikipedia article about Leigh Philips, in which Dustborn is included in a list of "other musical projects" the Welsh composer has worked on. I might have to turn all of this into a post of its own. I also would like to ask the AIs to explain how they missed these references, although I didn't find them on a google search either, which is odd since they're right at the top now.

      I may not have used the keyword "composer". I thought I did at some point. I asked who did the "music" and the "sound" and I asked for the "music credits". I'm pretty sure I also asked who "composed the music" but I might have said "wrote". Anyway, the key to getting the correct information would seem to be the phrase "Dustborn Composer".

      Enough for the comment thread. I'll amend the footnote, since this post is also now coming up in search results, but I think the discussion here explains everything.


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