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gameplay scene in Dust & Neon; the player character is caught in a crossfire as he tries to take down the electromagnetic gates protecting a generator he is tasked with destroying Image: David Marquardt Studios/Rogue Games

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Borderlands wishes it had this roguelike’s near-permadeath experience

These cel-shaded cowboys and robots play for keeps. Every mission.

Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

Top-down Borderlands. Surely, that’s what you are thinking as you see the screenshots. And yes, Dust & Neon — with its cel-shaded visuals, wasteland setting, infinite supply of guns, and dry commentary about their effectiveness — shares many traits with Gearbox Software’s first-person shooter franchise.

But there are two mechanisms that make Dust & Neon, launching Thursday for Windows PC and Nintendo Switch, a white-knuckle thrill ride where Borderlands’ titles bog down in risk-free grind. One is that you must individually reload every round with a button press when your gun is empty (why no one has thought of this before, beats me). It makes for some panicked kills and getaways. And the other is the near-permadeath experience of losing your shit — literally, all of it — if you get killed on a mission. That’s what makes Dust & Neon a roguelike, after all.

In other words, there are real stakes inside the grind of Dust & Neon. There are real choices to consider in your firepower. Is that two-round, break-action magnum really worth my pistol slot, despite its blazing damage, when I already have a three-barreled shotgun in my loadout?

Should I grind out that sabotage mission, and over-level myself for the boss fight? Because if I lose that grind mission, oh yes, I am going to lose my Epic revolver and Legendary, one-hit kill marksman rifle, and start over with Common crap. And that’s going to require even more grind. So, really, when should I take on this boss?

I have never asked these questions in any Borderlands game, frankly. Not only does respawning in those games take only a pittance of in-world currency, you also have a save file to revert to in case you really need the cash (as in Borderlands, the best weapons in Dust & Neon are found, not bought). But in addition to hitting that winning dopamine drip of shootout, lootout, and get out, developer David Marquardt has discovered a way to make it feel as if I earned what I stole.

Dust & Neon’s nominal story follows you as the Gunslinger, a kind of undead cyborg unleashed by a mad scientist in a campaign of revenge against this world’s robot oppressors. Mowing down said oppressors delivers skill points that the Gunslinger uses to get even better at killing them. There’s a very familiar progression tree back at his home base, where the player chooses from extra health, additional ammo, increased accuracy, and other perks.

There are also bigger, base-level perks — like the ability to recover some of your gear, or to spawn higher-level weapons when you get killed. These perks are unlocked with the Cores you recover from the droid corpses you leave behind. Here, too, Dust & Neon presents a thoughtful choice rather than a rote, pass-through click on a perk tree: Like, I have enough cash to upgrade the gun store and get a 5% discount on its gear, but all the weapons that guy sells are shit — I’d much rather save up for the gear-recovery perk. In other games, I’m just blasting through the perk tree in linear fashion because there’s no benefit worth saving up for.

You bank the Cores and cash you pick up from dead droids and chests at the end of a successful mission, so you won’t lose those, at least, if you’re killed. Your perk tree upgrades also remain in place. (Importantly, if you reach a new level on a mission, but die, you won’t lose that level progress when you respawn.) But the good, good gear you’ve worked for is on the table every time you start a mission. There’s no dashboard quitting either. Do that, and you definitely lose your stuff.

I reached level 8 before I took on my first boss battle, a level 6 encounter by the game’s recommendation. Technically, I didn’t need those last two missions, from which I stumbled out at minimal health, but carrying three A-list weapons and a ton of cash. In Dust & Neon, you can’t carry more than one weapon per slot. There are still loot crates galore with accompanying weapons to peruse, but because you have no backpack, your choices are to either trade one gun for the weapon you’re carrying, or liquidate it on the spot for cash. I appreciated this requirement — it got me back to the fun of Dust & Neon without the hassle of inventory management, which, in my Borderlands playthroughs, sometimes requires a pen and paper.

As for the cash, I was saving that for the vendor who does actually sell something useful for combat — depending on when you get to him. These are the “Mind Blowers,” upgrade microchips that the Gunslinger can insert into his noggin to gain three perks, but only for the next mission. And this, too, figured into my decision of when to take on the boss. Once I hit level 6 — which unlocked the first boss battle — I visited the shop in Dust & Neon’s hub world and saw a great chip: improved weapon accuracy overall, and a walloping damage multiplier from the first round in my revolver. But I still felt a little green for the challenge, considering my narrow escapes in the two preceding missions.

So, I opted for my decadeslong, ossified approach to RPG shooters, and over-leveled. Now ready to take on the boss — a robot named “Prototype 41” and his minions — the Mind Blower chip the shop offered was something useless. I bought a marginally better shotgun instead.

And I still lost my first boss fight! Lord, how I swore at the screen when I did. But you know what, it was a good loss. Even if I lost everything, I earned that result. I was connected to that challenge in ways I am not in a lot of big, triple-A shooters. It sells Dust & Neon short to describe it by Borderlands’ traits. It might be better to say Borderlands is just an easier Dust & Neon.