Much like my last job interview, Dust & Neon starts off strong but then royally flops from there. It looks the part, all decked out in vivid colors and cel-shading, and makes a strong opening statement. Satisfying gunplay mechanics with fluid movement options allowing you to slide into cover before popping up to return fire hint at a surprisingly strategic core gameplay loop. So job done, right? In the bag? Well, not quite.
When things really get going, Dust & Neon starts to fold under the pressure. Enemy attack patterns all but nullify that clever cover mechanic. Missions become painfully repetitive. The difficulty curve looks more like a plot of Meta’s share prices than a controlled, upward sweep. The game’s store page is similar to my CV in that certain aspects are a touch ‘exaggerated,’ let’s say. For example, “thousands of unique weapons” actually means three. Three weapon types with thousands of near identical variants, differing only minimally in their stats. I’m hardly one to judge, but that sounds a little bit like false advertising to me.
And despite all of that, there’s no denying it. Blasting fools with those three weapons feels really good. For some, that alone might be worth taking a punt.
Dust & Neon is available on Steam, Epic Games Store, and Nintendo Switch for $29.99.
Story – Shoot Stuff
You’d be hard-pushed to find less narrative setup in a game than this one, but that’s all good with me. Dr. [Eccentric Name Here] has developed a cloning device that pops out a wise-crackin’, gun-slingin’ cyborg cowboy to take out all them crazy robots that’s gone roamin’ around the post-apocolyptic, wild West wastelands. And that’s it. Have at it. There’s a bit of dialog now and again at the Doc’s HQ, but it’s all pretty tame and luckily doesn’t outstay its welcome.
At times, this nugget of exposition serves the game’s structure well. The typical roguelite ‘trial and death’ format makes sense when the resident mad scientist can just pump out another clone as needed. Sadly, some of the more obnoxious design choices, such as rank requirements for certain missions, grind the ol’ biomechanical gears all the more for the noticeable lack of narrative justification. We’ll get into that in a bit.
Gameplay – Reload Stuff
Dust & Neon makes a solid first impression. Various locked upgrade stations at home base promise future dopamine hits as you gather resources on missions and enhance your abilities. The opening couple of missions showcase the triumph that is the game’s control scheme. Obligatory A.I. assistant teaches you how to roll out of danger, duck behind cover, peak over terrain, and aim up before letting bullets fly. The reloading animation as you slam fresh rounds into your firearm is novel and satisfying. I don’t know precisely what it feels like to waste waves of demented, pistol-wielding mechanoids with just high-velocity hot lead, but this must be pretty close.
And yet for every successful core mechanic there’s a flub that negates it. Just when you realise the importance of taking cover and the joy of calculated play, the little rolling crab fellas appear. These joyous ball bois don’t bother with guns. Instead, they curl up and blitz at you, often in groups of four or five, forcing you to flee like a cat from the vacuum into open ground for the ranged bots to annoyingly chip away at your health with ease. So actually, it’s not a game about strategic positioning. It’s just about having a good enough gun to kill things before they become a problem. Now, about those guns…
The Guns Giveth…
You can carry three weapons at a time. A revolver, a shotgun, and a rifle. Typical all-rounder, short-range, and long-range archetypes respectively. You’ll find them in crates dotted around levels and in limited supply back at the lab. Here’s the thing, though. The difficulty level in Dust & Neon is dictated entirely by the guns you find.
If you’re unlucky, you’ll start out with a revolver that has an ammo capacity of 1. Seriously, a single bullet to fire off before reloading. This is a huge problem because, as charming as the animation is, reloading takes time. So when the little roller-crabs approach, you can only marvel as your one solitary round pings impotently off the ringleader’s armour. And then you run, because you won’t have another bullet chambered before the little bastards arrive and start doing their awkward, ambiguously ranged swipey attack.
So the first of the four map regions is the most challenging by a country mile, purely because you’re likely to be running around with pea shooters that are utterly unsuitable for the big groups of baddies you’ll encounter regularly. But by the time you unlock the second major zone, you probably have a good shotgun, at which point the game becomes brain-numbingly easy. You can pretty well fall asleep at the trigger and still come out on top, seeing as almost every enemy now crumbles from a single shot, and from any range if you get lucky with the accuracy stat. This is the game’s greatest flaw, turning the whole thing first into a brief, unfair struggle, then a prolonged, mindless grind.
Not Quite Roguelite
While Dust & Neon technically checks all the roguelite boxes, developer David Marquardt Studios fails to grasp the fundamental rationale behind those defining features. As a result, the signature charm of the genre simply isn’t there. Sure, you can spend your hard-earned ‘cores’ on upgrades at the lab, but they provide such minimal benefits, who could be bothered? Three trudges through the monotonous wastes might net you enough currency to unlock a 10% discount at the gun store, which you’ll barely use. Maybe you’ll get 5% off the little tonics that provide incredibly underwhelming, single-mission stat boosts. Be still my beating battery pack!
You also gain experience from killing stuff. Initially you’ll earn a whopping 2 character-enhancement points per level-up, dropping to 1 later on. Try to contain your excitement as you choose between absolute game-changers like “+1% accuracy” and “+5% damage for the first hit”. Not sure what that second one means? Me neither. There’s absolutely no catering to personal playstyles here. It’s just a case of always picking the upgrade that looks like it’ll be even remotely noticeable.
Identical Clones, Identical Missions
There are 4 or 5 mission types that appear on the map, but really they’re all the same. Wander through the procedurally-generated environment killing all the things. The train-based ones at least make for a slight visual change but amount to nothing more than a shockingly easy, more linear version of the others. Roguelite role models like Hades keep repeated runs interesting with genuine weapon variety, skill systems that meaningfully affect gameplay, and engaging worlds that evolve as each run progresses. In reducing these nuanced experiences to a list of bullet points, Dust & Neon misses out on all the meaning between the lines.
The double-tap to truly bury the game comes in the form of a level requirement for boss fights. I was more than ready to beat the bolts off the third big baddie the moment he appeared on the map. I did, after all, have a good shotgun, and you know what that means. But alas, I was 5 full levels below the requirement. And you know what that means. Mindlessly grinding through more identical, soul-destroying badlands. The boss fights are a highlight, too. It’s a shame to gate them behind a spotlighted showcase of crippling design flaws, disrespecting the player’s time all the while.
Graphics and Sound – Hit and Miss
Vibrant cel-shading is a reliable visual style, and sure enough, Dust & Neon is easy even on the most discerning of cybernetic eyeballs. Tragically though, as with the gameplay, lack of variety eventually sucks out all the joy. The dusty, techno-Western wilds are intriguing for a while, but after just a handful of indistinguishable missions, it all gets pretty tiresome. Even the 4 major zones of the map get little more than a palette swap, sometimes a subtle one at that.
Sound design is in part responsible for the game’s one saving grace. Namely, the satisfaction of neutralising suckers with a shotgun. It’s suspiciously clumsy and might even be accidental, but the chunky, boosted volume of multiple bangs when the shottie unleashes its exploded slug, along with the pings of some fragments ricocheting off scenery and the crunch of others collapsing an enemy bot’s exoskeleton, all makes for a very cathartic effect. Even at its most mindless, the game can always rely on some base level of enjoyment. At the very least, you can blast fools.
Audio fairs much worse in other areas. There’s a single backing track for each of the four zones, plus boss accompaniment, which adds up to hours of playtime for each. I hope you like slide guitar, because repetitive riffs over minimal basslines and electronic percussion are about all that’s on offer here. They’re perfectly serviceable tunes for 5 or 10 minutes. Not 5 or 10 hours.
Dust & Neon was reviewed on PC (Steam) with a key provided by Reverb Inc.