Just as one should be careful of judging the contents of a book by the cover art, anyone who grew up in the early days of gaming knows it also isn’t wise to judge a game by its pixel count. Dustbowl, developed by The Pompous Pixel, might look like a blast from the past, but don’t let first appearances fool you. This post-apocalyptic RPG boasts a challenging quest for survival and surprisingly fleshed out gameplay along with the old-school overlay.
Aliens have invaded the Earth, leaving the surface a dust-covered wasteland filled with nightmarish mutants and anyone crazy or desperate enough to remain above ground. You are the son of one of the survivors who helped establish a colony under the earth known as the HUB. Your father is sent out on an important mission that might affect the future of your little, underground community. Not one to wait for your fate, you decide to join the militia and hopefully locate your father and help bring him safely home.
Navigating the world is as simple as clicking on the direction or location you’d like your character to go. Scrolling over a given item, container or location will let you know if you can interact with it. Clicking on a door will either move you in or out or inform you if entry is blocked. Though I was never a particular fan of point-and-click adventures, this works well, especially when investigating your surroundings. You can also toggle walking speed under settings to help make moving around the world map or strolling across rooms a little quicker.
Survival will be your highest priority and the greatest challenge you will face in Dustbowl. There are separate meters for water, food and health. Another meter keeps track of the day and night cycle, ensuring you remember to get enough rest or face the negative consequences. This, of course, means you will need to make certain you have enough supplies as you wander, including basic essentials, health items, armour repair kits, weapons, and tents so you can rest when not back at the HUB. Eventually, this becomes a balancing act between what you need and what you can carry.
You will have a limited number of items you can keep in your pack based on overall weight. Later in the game, this becomes the biggest challenge to your survival. Thankfully, you can buy and sell items when encountering a vendor, or craft certain items when at a workbench,
Crafting is simple and surprisingly robust. When you reach a workbench you will see a list of items that can be made and which items will be needed to complete the task. It actually feels quite a bit like something straight out of Fallout 1 and 2, an impression I carried with me throughout the game.
However, while the crafting system is intuitive, the only downside is, as with all the items you collect, scrolling over an item does not provide a description of what it does. For instance, you don’t really know how restorative one health item is over another except through trial and error. This means when crafting, especially initially, you have to make a best guess with some items rather than going off of stats or descriptions.
The only other complaint regarding items, aside from lack of descriptions, is an inability to sort items by function. Instead, all items are displayed in a way that does feel very much like digging through a backpack. The ability to sort items based on function would have helped me track what I had more efficiently, But, perhaps that is more a matter of preference than necessity.
Enemy encounters are randomly generated and combat is simple, but a challenge to perfect. Anyone who played PGA Tour for the SNES will be somewhat familiar with it. Choosing to attack sets off a line that scrolls quickly over a meter marked by three colours: grey (miss), blue (normal hit), and red (critical hit). You can select what body parts you would like to target. The three areas shrink or increase based on the body part you select for attack. For example, the head has a much smaller critical hit area than the torso.
Combat is turn-based and aside from using different types of weapons that allow for higher or lower hit points, it has little variety. That is not to say it necessarily gets old quickly, but the turn-based system does not work quite as well for this type of combat. Once you have the timing down, there is not much of a challenge left. Adding a more tactical approach or changing the combat style to quick turns and adding a block/parry function would add an additional challenge. Adding pros and cons to the weapons would also allow the player to make more informed decisions regarding which weapons to use, particularly if enemies displayed certain weaknesses based on type of assault.
Thankfully, the survival elements overshadow and outweigh anything the combat lacks. But, the major driving force behind your decision to take one more step into the dangerous unknown is the thrill of exploration which Dustbowl captures perfectly.
The world of Dustbowl is rather large considering the game’s engine and is divided into six different quadrants, each having their own style. Aside from the overarching story, you will also have the option to accept quests from NPCs throughout the world, some more outlandish than others. For instance, one of the first requests you are given is locating four stuffed bunnies misplaced by a small child. Complete the quests, and you will receive loot and experience points.
Due largely to the fact your character initially seems rather run-of-the-mill for an adventure title (and looks a bit old to be in his early 20s), it took me a little bit to be able to put myself into his shoes. The dialogue can sometimes fall a bit flat and occasionally suffers from spelling and grammatical errors. Nothing anywhere near as memorable as “All your base are belong to us,” but something that needs to be taken into account for future studio endeavours.
After spending a short time with the game, however, I found myself getting sucked in. Dustbowl manages to tap into the most basic instinct of any curious gamer: I wanted to know what was going to happen next. I wanted to see how far I could go, what new places there were to explore, and what new characters I could meet. Each new character seemed to have a backstory, even ones with whom I spent little time. I could tell the developers invested great amounts of time into considering how these people had lived in this world up until the moment we met, who they were, and what their motivations are.
The game also does a fantastic job of conveying a sense of isolation, particularly in the sound design. Most of the time, you hear only wind or white noise interrupted only by the sound of your own footsteps. Among the old, worn down structures and amid the dust-strewn landscape, the sense of loneliness is palpable.
From the numerous sci-fi easter eggs to the obvious inspiration from games like Fallout and Metro 2033, and the clear level of care put into making Dustbowl a robust and engaging survival/adventure experience, there is no doubt the developers know their audience and are themselves fans of the genre.
Sure, Dustbowl isn’t perfect. A world map would have been handy, but at least the game marks out places you have already explored. Adding item and weapon details, the ability to sort items in the inventory and perhaps greater use of the crafting system regarding weapons would be a welcome addition. A more robust combat system would add a great deal to the game’s overall enjoyment simply due to the fact that you have to engage in it so often. But, the areas Dustbowl gets right (story, a sense of exploration, interesting characters, and a complex survival system), adds up to an impressive entry into the RPG/survival genre.
Dustbowl is available on Steam.
The Pompous Pixel has already made a great start to a promising series. Dustbowl is more evidence of the great work that can be accomplished by a game developer that has a heart for the fans and a love of the craft.