Grab your guns, we’re heading west… to shoot some robots! Dust & Neon by David Marquardt Studios is a roguelite top-down shooter where you play as a cloned gunslinger trying to mow down armies of robots in the futuristic Wild West.
Your character wakes up in a cloning tank in a laboratory of a mad scientist. The goal is simple, to go on various missions, eliminating as many robots as possible. Every time your character dies, the game takes you back to the lab, where you gain control of a new clone. The lab also serves as a hub, for upgrading the clone and purchasing new guns and gear and you also have some options to upgrade the lab itself.
Tools of trade
You can carry a classic choice of three weapons – a revolver, a shotgun, and a sniper rifle. Each gun has a rarity and some basic stats like damage, accuracy, handling, number of rounds… These stats are summarized into a weapon score and in combination with somehow unreal gun mechanics (like a sniper rifle with a cylinder for four rounds) it strongly reminded me of Borderlands. But while most gun mechanics can be seen in many other games, there is one feature that makes gun handling and the whole gameplay very unique and that is reloading. In Dust & Neon, you have to load every single round manually.
It would be a very annoying mechanic in a game with assault rifles and machine guns but here it just perfectly plays into the theme of Wild West. A horde of enemies is coming after you, you hear the familiar click of an empty gun and you quickly struggle to fill the cylinder again, before the robots reach your cover. Bang! Bang! Bang! And the last enemy falls right next to your feet. Your gun is still smoking as you check the bodies for bullets that will help you deal with what comes next. These moments really made me love the game. The music and rough-around-the-edges aesthetic only accentuate this feeling and can really pull you into the world of the futuristic gunslinger.
There is not much story or world-building but I do not consider it necessary in this genre. Your goal is simply to eliminate robots. After exiting the lab, there is a teleport that brings you to mission areas. You can choose from several types of missions in one region, as you progress in the game and defeat bosses, three more regions unlock, and some more mission types appear. You can choose from activities like clearing the area of enemies, destroying targets (green barrels scattered around the map), sabotaging base (destroying two pieces of machinery), train robbery, and bomb defusal. The core gameplay seems very similar in most of the missions (and can get a bit repetitive if you don’t progress to a new region fast enough). You arrive, shoot everything that moves, loot guns, money, and cores for upgrades along the way, disable the target, and proceed to exit. But let me tell you, not every mission is created equal. The bomb defusal mission was added recently and is the only one that has a timer. Either the timer is too short, or there are too many enemies to handle in a given time. If you fail to reach the bomb in time, it explodes, you die and lose everything, including your guns. And there is no significant increase in reward compared to other missions, so I quickly put this mission in the “not worth the risk” category.
On the contrary, some missions are insanely rewarding. In the train robbery mission, there are three trains riding next to each other, connected via several catwalks. The trains are full of crates with money and there is usually a higher rarity gun at the end. Also, due to the map layout, there is no way enemies can ambush you from behind so you have much more control over the situation. Easy money.
All the missions have easy/medium/hard variants, but sadly there is not a high enough reward to justify taking risks on hard missions. The reward for a hard mission is only 100 dollars higher than for an easy mission (for comparison, low rarity gun in the shop costs around 350) and it didn’t seem like there is better loot to be found in harder missions either. I had several runs where I found legendary weapons in easy missions, and then took harder missions only to repeatedly find much worse guns than I looted on previous easy missions. Even the reward chests after the boss fight often got me a worse gun than the one I brought into the fight.
Your final goal is to upgrade the character and the base enough so that you can beat all six bosses of the game. The upgrades are persistent, the gear of your character is not. When the clone dies, he loses his guns. After respawning you either have enough money and base upgrades to buy back the good weapons you lost, or you have to get by with random free weapons that the scientist provides you with.
Your character has two upgrade trees available – offense and defense. The upgrades help you survive longer on the battlefield but there’s nothing groundbreaking. You can raise your max. HP, bullet capacity, heal by killing enemies or picking up ammo, but there are no new skills that would freshen up the combat.
The base also has several upgrade options, which increase the chance of a higher rarity of the free weapons, or allows you to recover lost weapons (you have to unlock the ability to recover each weapon type). You can also unlock gear stores near the laboratory and then, thanks to the lab upgrades, improve their offers or get a slight discount. The first one you unlock is a weapons shop that always has 1 revolver, 1 shotgun, and 1 sniper rifle on offer. But even with some of the discounts unlocked I always felt that the guns in the shop were overpriced and I rarely purchased anything there. My money was mostly spent on one-time boosts called Mind Blowers. These boosts last for one mission only but offer some interesting stat raises, which can be the difference between winning and losing a boss fight. Later in the game, you can also unlock Snake Oils, which are similar to Mind Blowers, but the really powerful ones can have nasty side effects. Strangely, the Snake Oils which offer some much cheaper options, are unlocked later than Mind Blowers, which always cost several hundreds of dollars. So at the start of the game, you can’t afford accessible boosts but can’t access the affordable boosts.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Despite the previously mentioned balancing issues, I would still be able to enjoy the game if it were not for the vast collection of bugs. I enjoy roguelite games, but they must be released in a state that does not punish the player for encountering a bug. Multiple times I lost a really good legendary weapon because an enemy shot me through a corner of the building or I got stuck in a room behind a door that I had to pay a lot to unlock just seconds ago, or I could not open a container because the prompt to open it was not there or it was hidden behind invisible wall… If this happened in a game where you just reload a save and crack on, it would be tolerable. But being roguelite, the game punishes you for your mistakes and for the mistakes of the devs and that is a bit too much. Combined with the fact, that enemies see you and can track you and sometimes even shoot through the walls of the buildings, it can be a very frustrating experience.
Dust & Neon needs a thorough bug hunt and then it could become an enjoyable and challenging experience. But right now, as much as I love the concept of the game, its aesthetics, and its atmosphere I just cannot recommend the game.