Despite their well-documented flaws, I absolutely love the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games. As a series it certainly ranks among my all-time favourites, and for some time now I’ve been seeking a worthy spiritual successor to the rich, mysterious, and bleakly atmospheric world of the Zone. At last, I think I’ve finally found one, though little did I expect it to be in the form of a 2D retro-stylised point-and-clicker.
Dustbowl takes place in a forbidding post-apocalyptic future. Rapacious aliens came, saw, and bled the planet dry of all its resources, leaving a thick cloud of toxic ash in their wake. Those who survived now dwell in the comparative safety and comfort of underground ruins, while scavengers and bandits eke out a perilous existence amidst the mutant-infested and radioactive wastelands of the dust-enveloped surface.
Sounds pretty grim, but things only get worse. Residing in one of these subterranean enclaves, you now find yourself threatened by a series of earthquakes that appear to emanate from the centre of the Dustbowl, a huge nearby crater surrounded by an impenetrable psi-field. Not wanting to stir up a panic, your father sneaks off on a secret mission to find a way through and determine the cause of the seismic activity. You awake to find he has left without explanation. Worried, and a little peeved off about being stonewalled, you decide to get permission to head to the surface and track him down.
What I love about Dustbowl is how seamlessly it blends multiple genres and influences all neatly packaged into something that wouldn’t seem out of place on the Commodore 64. At first glance, it looks and plays out like an old-school adventure title. Indoor locations are rendered as side-on flip-screens and the outdoor areas as a scrolling top-down map-style view, while interaction, movement, and inventory management is through a simple mouse interface. But it’s much more than that – a surprisingly involved game featuring combat, character progression, survival and crafting mechanics, and open-world exploration. There’s even a day and night cycle.
Like the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and early Fallout games (of which there are references galore), you find yourself in a fascinating and varied but inhospitable landscape full of moody locations and entertaining distractions spread across a large map. You could just simply follow the central story, but you’d be missing out on a significant portion of the adventure and Dustbowl’s engaging lore if you didn’t at least get a little side-tracked – there’s actually around 15-20 hours of gameplay to be had here (not bad for a game that costs £5.99).
There are abandoned houses, shops and towns, factories, warehouses and hospitals, research outposts and military bases, and even an old theme park, all begging to be explored and each one with its own story to tell – vignettes of a forgotten past or the curious tales of those who’ve gone before you. And populating this ravaged world is a large cast of colourful characters to chat and interact with – adventurers and explorers, militia men and bandits, cultists, scientists and traders, and the mysterious and elusive molemen. Oh, and a dude dressed as a chicken selling suspect hot dogs out in the wilderness.
As you pass through these wastelands there’s the chance of random encounters. Outdoors this could be a loot container, a friendly character, or even, much to your character’s bafflement, Doctor Who’s TARDIS, but indoors this will always be a foe. Be prepared to face Mad Max-style bandits and some quirky B-movie mutants and little grey men.
Combat itself is turn based and built around a reflex bar. A relatively simple system it may be, but it’s still fun and requires a little skill and strategy. The trick is to aim for a non-armoured body region and try to land those criticals for extra damage. Even better if you can hit the bullseye, which will one-hit kill weaker baddies. Or if you’re feeling yellow, you can even attempt to run.
In addition to the constant threat of attack, you also need to eat, drink, and sleep regularly as well as take care of any status effects such as infection from consuming tainted grub or bleeding wounds acquired during clashes. Stocking up and upgrading before tackling tougher missions or heading out to the more dangerous regions is always advisable.
Luckily, much of what you need can be purchased from traders, whereas mutant meat can be cooked to make a tasty burger and all that junk you find can be crafted at workbenches into useful items like bandages and med kits, as well as the coveted multitools which allow you to unlock special gear containers. Plus, every extra side-quest you take on and every area you investigate is the chance to further level up your character and scavenge for better equipment or essential supplies and crafting materials.
Dustbowl is not without a few balance issues though. Primarily, loot is far too abundant. Though you struggle early on, by the mid-game you’re absolutely flush with supplies. It’s certainly not worth wasting skill points on perception which increases your chance of finding stuff – far better to plug them into damage or health points. As a consequence, I also found the S.T.A.L.K.E.R.-style artefacts to be of little value. It didn’t help that, like the status effects they protect you from during combat, they’re not explained at all by the game. Furthermore, the plenitude of energy drinks completely negates the requirement to sleep and makes purchasing a tent pointless.
Another bugbear for me was the inventory system. The weight limit seems generous at first, but the latter part of the game is dogged by excessive inventory management. You can store surplus items in a storage box that can be accessed from several key locations, a nice touch, but it only has 16 slots. Part of the problem is you’re not sure what to keep or sell (some items I never found a purpose for), and as I alluded to above you do need to be well provisioned when venturing out into the unknown, especially given how easy it is to get lost if you don’t stick to the roads or carefully follow directions provided by NPCs.
And while having to make difficult decisions about weapons and armour is not necessarily a bad thing, the increased effectiveness of the better gear generally isn’t worth the huge loss in inventory space. In particular, armour suits are very heavy and need to be completely repaired every couple of fights. For much of the game I stuck to pistols rather than the larger, more powerful rifles or the flamethrower, and I didn’t bother too much with armour until right at the end when you need it to get through the radiation zones and psi-field.
That said, these gripes only slightly detract from what is a splendid game. It’s such a rich and engrossing universe, and there really is a fantastic vibe to it. I absolutely adore the 8-bit inspired pixel art which, despite the simple colours, shading, and animations, manages to convey a lot of grimy detail. And these charming visuals combine brilliantly with an oppressive but restrained industrial ambiance nicely complimented by ominous and evocative synth music.
It’s such an incredibly atmospheric experience that manages to capture your imagination and draw you into its fleshed-out reality. And I’m not being disingenuous when I say that The Pompous Pixel’s Dustbowl really is the closest I’ve seen anyone come to emulating the magic of the Zone.
Dustbowl was released May 2015 and is available for Windows PC on Steam here.