Despite its collection of influences so familiar it borders on cliche, Dust & Neon is a fun twin-stick romp with a killer mechanic.
Top-down twin-stick shooters are a dime a dozen. As are rogue-lites. As are Wild West genre mash-ups incorporating steampunk, cyberpunk or science-fiction. And numerous games combine all three.
This means Dust & Neon is a familiar-tasting concoction with notes of Borderlands and West of Dead, the tang of 12 is Better Than 6, and a twist of SteamWorld to finish. However, despite these clear influences, it’s pleasing to discover that David Marquardt’s new game stands out from the crowd with excellent production values and satisfying moment-to-moment action.
What makes one game work where another fails? It can be a million things. The visual aesthetic. A well-placed sound cue. A flourish of animation. Or the sweep of a camera. The tiniest element can make all the difference in how a game feels to play.
Dust & Neon‘s success is down to its shoot-and-reload combat mechanic. Every bullet you fire – from your rifle, revolver, or shotgun – has to be reloaded manually with a tap of the Y button.
Bang! Bang! Bang! Tap. Tap. Tap.
It sounds frustrating on paper, but in practice, the process of reloading a weapon quickly becomes second nature. The call and response creates a tangible connection between the player and their sidearm. And more importantly, it helps to set the game’s pace, giving the action a rhythmic quality.
The components of each level complement the design. Cover is abundant, and to have any chance of wiping out your robotic opponents, you’ll need to use it. Finding the time and space to reload requires a patient approach to ensure you don’t become overwhelmed by enemies, and the payoff is often sublime. There’s nothing more satisfying than breaking cover, firing off two shots, reloading your shotgun, and firing another two rounds just in time to defeat a foe barrelling towards you. Dust & Neon may be a top-down game, but it’s frequently cinematic in its set pieces.
There’s also plenty to find by poking into the corners of each level. Buildings, ranches, and train carriages hold treasures and ammo to accumulate, all scooped up with a reassuring tinkle. Between missions, you return to base with your spoils to purchase skill-tree upgrades and apply defensive and offensive buffs. And off you go again.
Blam! Blam! Blam! Tap. Tap. Tap.
A series of boss battles interrupt this loop but not to the game’s benefit. Each has its own gimmick – a chainsaw or Gatling gun, for example – and although the variety is welcome, there’s a fussiness to the encounters. It’s the one area of the game where a sense of control is lacking. Fortunately, they can be overcome with a little perseverance, and it’s back to the good stuff.
Bosses aside, it’s hard to resist Dust & Neon‘s consistent pleasures. It won’t win awards for originality, but it’s a game that knows how to make its influences work in harmony. Its bite-sized structure also makes it an excellent choice for handheld gamers. The vibrant, crisp visuals perform flawlessly on Nintendo Switch, and it’s well suited to Valve’s Steam Deck.
Does Dust & Neon break new ground? Not at all. Does it do something we’ve never seen with a Western genre mash-up or a rogue-lite? Not at all. Does it give that itchy trigger finger a good time?
Pop! Pop! Pop! Tap. Tap. Tap.
Very much so.
Game: Dust & Neon
Platform: Nintendo Switch, PC
Developer: David Marquardt
Publisher: Rogue Games Inc
Release Date: February 16, 2023