Buy low, sell high – the age-old fundamentals of commerce make for an intensely satisfying game experience. Games like Mount and Blade or Battle Brothers put the principles of supply and demand at the forefront of their economic systems. At the end of the day, however, those games center around conquest and combat; making a quick purse of gold by running goods from one town to the next is just another means of getting your troops paid, fed, and equipped.
Dust To The End, on the other hand, puts economics front and center. Starting with little more than a weapon and a handful of questionably-acquired cash, players wheel and deal their way across a post-apocalyptic wasteland. There are fights, of course – bandits, mutants, and radioactive zombies are everywhere – but these serve as little more than an obstacle to your goal of acquiring obscene wealth.
The vast majority of your time in Dust To The End will be spent managing the logistics of your caravan. Each party member can only carry so much, so even if you can afford to corner the market on a particular product you’ll still need a way to transport it. You’ll also need to bring enough food and water to survive in the wastes – maybe a little extra in case something goes wrong. You can purchase carts and eventually vehicles to transport heavier loads, but each will need someone to operate it so you’ll need to hire more hands… who will, in turn, consume more food and water (and expect to be paid every month).
The quickest way to make money is to sell trade goods at a profit. In the game’s starting area, for example, you can buy cigarettes at Border Town and sell them for almost quadruple at Bai Sha. From there, you can use the profits to pick up some salt, which is in demand at Tucker Village. Sell the salt to buy soap, backtrack to Bai Sha where the soap will fetch a high price, then re-invest in limestone which you can bring back to Border Town. The game is full of regional trade networks like this one, and the player can invest in local industries in each town so they will produce more valuable goods.
As the game progresses, the player discovers more and more ways to engage in ruthless, unapologetic capitalism. Clear an underground bunker of hostiles, and you can convert it into a factory and produce goods of your own. You can even hire a merchant to sell the goods on your behalf, earning you monthly income without having to lift a finger. Eventually, you’ll even be able to buy shares of the wasteland’s trade routes, forcing competitors out of the market and earning still more passive income. All that extra money can go to improving your facilities, investing in local industry, or deploying a fleet of 18-wheelers to ferry goods all over. That, or you could just blow it all at the slot machines or blackjack tables.
Dust To The End boasts a surprising number of minigames, from the aforementioned gambling to a neat board-game-like interface that’s used to steal market share from competing traders. Randomly-generated bunkers appear across the map, each giving the player one chance at a dungeon crawl for significant loot rewards and some new real estate. Managing your facilities adds a base-building mechanic, requiring you to balance power supply, food, and security as you expand your operations.
Combat is inevitable in the game’s brutal setting, but it’s fairly forgiving all-in-all. Characters cannot die, for one thing – if a party member drops to 0 HP they enter an “Injured” state and can no longer fight or carry goods until they recover. The main drawback to having injured teammates is that it can easily cause your caravan to become overburdened, slowing your movement on the map to a crawl unless you dump some precious cargo or wait for your ally to recover.
The battle system is fairly robust, despite not being the main focus of the game. Combatants have an armor value as well as hit points. Most attacks will damage armor before touching hit points, and if a character has even one point of armor left the damage they take is halved. Best of all, armor resets after every battle with no need to repair or refit, giving badly wounded characters a fighting chance if they get stuck in another fight.
Dust To The End features a fairly standard array of melee and ranged weapons – swords, axes, hammers, crossbows, and rifles to name a few. Some weapons synergize well with others, allowing for potent combos. For example, a hammer-wielding character can stun enemies, forcing them to forfeit their next action. This is a great ability as it is, made all the better by the fact that crossbows deal extra damage to stunned enemies! Teaming a hammerer with a crossbowman is a great idea, and there are other weapon pairs such as axes and rifles that have similar benefits.
Of course, there is more to consider when building your team than loadouts. Characters with clashing personalities will decrease the morale of the entire party. Morale is important when combat starts – your team’s shared pool of Action Points, which power their special abilities, refreshes each round based on Morale. A more cohesive team will be able to use more powerful attacks more frequently than one that is always arguing. Additionally, some party members have traits that will affect non-combat situations as well; a burly fighter will be great in a fight, but if he eats twice as much as everyone else he could be a liability on the road.
This is a game where money is king. It provides plenty of ways to make money, and most of them are based in simple economics – ruthless, perhaps, but not necessarily immoral. Unfortunately, Dust To The End does ask one thing of the player that is hard to overlook. When you get your underground production facilities up and running, you’ll need workers to extract goods for you to sell. These workers are bought and sold at a town’s Labor Market – the player character is using slave labor to run their operations. Healthy, docile laborers cost more money than sickly or rebellious ones. They go into your inventory and can even be placed into storage indefinitely with other items. The game also requires you to hire security guards for your facilities to keep the workers in line. The whole thing really, really doesn’t sit well, even though “it’s just a game.”
Dust To The End‘s hand-drawn characters and locations are a real treat. The artists’ attention to detail brings the wasteland to life whether it’s in battle, on the world map, or in town. There are plenty of different character models, allowing the player to create a unique team with each playthrough. For all the love that was put into creating the visuals, it’s a shame the setting and storyline aren’t more developed.
The protagonist lived with their community in a sealed bunker, generations after a nuclear war destroyed the world above. A highly-organized bandit gang broke in, killing most of the Undergrounders and enslaving the rest. The protagonist was left for dead until they were found in the desert by a benevolent caravan leader and is now seeking to track down the bandits and rescue any survivors from their bunker. It’s the kind of story players have heard before, and the post-apocalyptic setting doesn’t have much to set it apart from the dozens of others that are out there.
Overall, Dust To The End is a well-presented trading game with solid mechanics. Its multiple endings and variety of strategies allow for more than one playthrough, and the lure of profit makes it easy to lose track of time in the real world as you complete one more supply run (and then another, then maybe just one more). It’s unfortunate that the developers chose to make slave labor an important game mechanic, as this is a serious mar on an otherwise good game. However realistic it may be in the context of the setting, it didn’t need to be there.