Dust: An Elysian Tail found itself coming out at the very end of a rather lackluster Summer of Arcade. Since the XBLA event’s inception, we’ve come to expect the spotlight to be more on high-quality indie titles during a time where we don’t see many AAA titles being released. In my opinion, it’s usually a time where we can comfortably dig in to releases from the other end of the game industry.
Unfortunately, the games that made this year’s line-up had been pretty underwhelming, either because they never had any intention of filling that type of role, or the quality just wasn’t what we’ve come to expect. Heading into the final week, you could only hope Microsoft saved the best for last.
As it turns out, they did. Dust: An Elysian Tail is totally that.
The game puts you in the boots of an anthropomorphic swordsman named Dust, who starts the story waking up in the middle of nowhere, with no memory of who he is. Here he meets his companions, Ahrah, a mysterious talking sword that is drawn to Dust, and the sword’s guardian, a flying squirrel-thing named Fidget, who will be playing both the role of the annoying sidekick with a squeaky voice as well as the wielder of your ranged attacks.
Together, the trio begin the journey to get some answers about Dust’s identity, and while the whole “hero with amnesia” storyline isn’t anything new, the game actually throws in enough twists that it makes for a pretty solid story overall, one that is mostly successful at balancing both the light-hearted side of things as well as the heavier stuff. While it doesn’t change the formula on this type of tale, it doesn’t go with the obvious explanation regarding the character’s identity, and it actually delivers a pretty sympathetic villain, as somebody who feels genuinely confused and betrayed by what’s happening as the game progresses.
It’s certainly interesting, but if I have any complaints about the game’s story, it’s that it just doesn’t explore those elements enough. For all the dialogue that’s in the game (conversations feel just a few too many sentences too long, but thankfully it’s instantly skippable), you don’t really get a sense of Dust’s inner struggle with who he is beyond a few scenes where he’s just kind of grabbing his head, and they never really explore the villain’s history. This leads to an ending that feels rather sudden and tragic. It definitely deserves credit for landing in a pretty emotion place but, despite an attempt to be heartwarming at the end, the ending just doesn’t satisfy as much as it could have.
Fortunately, that can be forgiven because the journey to that conclusion is satisfying enough to make up for where story may fall short, thanks to just how fun the game is.
Dust is a 2D exploration-based Action RPG with some clear inspiration from the 2D Castlevania games, with more of an over-the-top combat system which almost carries the spirit of something similar to a Devil May Cry but in a 2D form.
During a fight, you’ll hack and slash through hordes of monsters while maintaining a combo meter. While it’s certainly not demanding to do so (the chain only gets interrupted if you get hit or during a noticeable pause), keeping that number climbing is just as satisfying as it’s been in any game. Using Dust’s fighting abilities, Fidget’s spells, and combining the two in a variety of what I can only describe as “Doom-Tornados,” the combat is increadibly satisfying and leads to a lot of awesome moments slashing through the sky and obliterating tons of enemies.
The combat may not always control as tightly as you might want, and you won’t unlock anything as you level up, as the RPG side of things is pretty basic, but the gameplay still does a very good job at capturing that feeling of growth you want from a game of this kind. You’ll start the game struggling to take down common blob creatures, and by end of the game find yourself capable of absolutely wrecking everything that comes up on the screen. This kind of makes the game a bit easy before you get to the end, but there are harder difficulties, and, like I said, I actually kind of enjoy the feeling of building my character’s power up that much.
Now instead of giving you one giant location to explore like a Castlevania or a Metroid, Dust divides the areas up on one main map so you can visit each individually. The areas are still large and packed with enough hidden treasures (as well as some other secrets that combine to form one pretty awesome shout-out to other popular indie titles) that the game will definitely scratch any itch for exploration you may have, but the main map keeps things a bit more manageable in terms of overall progress. This way it’s a bit easier to keep track of how much treasure you’ve gotten, how much of the maps you’ve filled out, and where you can potentially progress with a new ability. Of the areas you’ll go to, you’ll find a couple of towns where you can usually get some side-quests from the inhabitants, and wild areas where you’re mainly slashing your way through to explore or progress.
But don’t let the idea of side-quests and exploration make you think the game may be too much to juggle, though. Of all the “Metroidvania” games I’ve played, Dust is easily the most accessible in terms of doing everything there is to do. A fully completed file can be achieved around the 16 hour mark (and the story well before that). Despite the somewhat floaty physics at times, there’s no absurdly difficult platforming or anything like that, and any real puzzles are usually just a new variation of the bomb plant one you’re introduced to at the beginning of the game.
Overall, the gameplay for Dust is what carries the load. It’s not the most challenging game you’ll play of this nature, but there were a lot of points where it could have been horribly frustrating. Luckily, it chooses to embrace the spectacle of what it is, instead of forcing elements that just wouldn’t have worked for the type of game it is.
As for the presentation, what will immediately stand out is how great the game looks in action. There is a good number of environments and they all look spectacular. Dust’s animation also looks good, and with everything that will be happening on your screen, it’s definitely satisfying visually.
Unfortunately, the story part of the game doesn’t deliver the visuals quite as well. It’s a nitpick, admittedly, but I’m not a big fan of most of the character designs. Some of them are alright, but a lot of them just look kind of cheap when put next to the colorful and well-detailed environments. The animation for a lot of those characters can also be too stiff and you can’t help but wish everybody moved a bit more fluidly. As I said, though, those are nitpicks on what is a mostly visually-pleasing package.
In fact, nitpicks are really all I have when it comes to Dust. It’s certainly not a flawless gem, but every aspect of it does manage to deliver in some way. It has its rough spots, but is capable of making up for them with its best aspects, which it has plenty of.
On one level you can’t help but respect the work Dean Dodrill (Humble Hearts) put into it over the years, but even if you don’t know anything about the game’s development history, you’ll likely still be surprised with just how excellent of a title Dust: An Elysian Tail is. I certainly was.
Posted in Reviews by Ben Matlock on August 23, 2012