Dust: An Elysian Tail is a love letter to the days of old, when we were content with the 16-bit side-scrolling exploits that made up the classic generation of gaming. You’ll find beautiful worlds, unique characters and plentiful secrets just waiting to be discovered at your leisure. You’ll slash, chat, collect and level up all in the name of taking down the powerful foes and helping the friendly denizens that inhabit the land.
It may sound like Dust offers little new in terms of style and gameplay mechanics, and to some extent this assumption would be true. To consider the game nothing more than the sum of its parts would be a mistake however, as this is one adventure that comes together to form a satisfying whole which succeeds to excite and enchant in equal measure.
Developer: Humble Hearts
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Platform: Xbox LIVE Arcade (Reviewed)
Genre: Action Role-Playing Game
Release: (INT) August 15th, 2012
All this comes courtesy of a man named Dean Dodrill who, with a little help from few others, managed to produce the game in a three year period. It’s stunning then that Dust manages to be one of the best titles available over Xbox Live, attaining a form of greatness that most similar titles strive for, yet so often fail to deliver. It’s clear that there are a number of inspirations hard at work here, as the game fits nicely into the ‘Metroidvania’ sub-genre with all of its backtracking and RPG-lite elements. Derivative perhaps, but when everything is up to such a lofty standard, there’s little reason to chastise a developer for sticking to the tried and true.
You play as the titular Dust, a mysterious anthropomorphic character who retains no memory of his past deeds. The tale begins with the arrival of a talkative blade which goes by the name of Ahrah, closely followed by Fidget, a cute nimbat who spends her time commenting, cracking wise and even breaking the fourth wall during the chattier moments. Conversations are presented by way of basic cutscenes sporting looping animations, bold white text and voice work ranging from competent to amateurish. Dust himself is a particularly bad offender, and while the high-pitched tones of Fidget may initially fill you with a sense of dread, she’ll soon grow on you and become a genuinely welcome companion.
The main crux of what makes up An Elysian Tail is the combat, which is both fluid and incredibly flashy. You can perform basic slashes, aerial grabs and combine Fidget’s otherwise weak projectiles with a prolonged spin to perform the ‘dust storm’. This sweeping attack is great for damaging a large number of foes at once and its aerial equivalent will no doubt be a technique of choice when dealing with flying enemies and the powerful bosses. This simple battle system is elegant, accessible and wonderfully over-the-top, revealing that you don’t need an exhaustive list of moves to keep things interesting – it’s far more important that each strike makes the proper impact and feels right to the player.
Despite the majority of the hordes being made up of low-level grunts begging to meet the justice end of Dust’s sword, you’ll go toe-to-toe with some much tougher types along the way. These usually require a strategy other than swinging the sword to be conquered, and a few will even self-detonate should you get too close. Although ground-level thugs change in design and increase in difficulty, there’s a hierarchy at work here; getting rid of teleporting wizard types takes precedence over the smaller grunts, for example, as it will only conjure more if left alive. Take note that many sections of the map demand you to clear the area before you can progress, which can be a pain when backtracking is required. On the other hand, this does benefit you in the long run as Dust continues to level up.
As mentioned before, the game packs in a few RPG elements for good measure. Far from just battling enemies in the name of levelling up, you’ll pick up cash to be used in the world’s various stores, collect regenerative foods as well as special trinkets which can be worn to provide you with benefits such as increased defence or to see better in dark caverns. Raw materials can be collected and handed to civilians in the name of fetch quests (collect X amount of one item), but their main purpose comes via crafting, which can only be done once you’ve travelled off the beaten path and discovered the blacksmith. This aspect can be easily ignored if you so wish, being anything but integral to the action of the game itself.
There’s no denying that every effort has been put in to make Dust something special. Animated charm seeps from every corner of the world, and the music rises and falls in all the right places. It’s often the smaller touches that leave the biggest impression and this is a title that’s bursting at the seams with them. Animals run past in wooded areas, unlockable chests wait in hidden locales, bomb fruits blast open new routes and characters remark about the quest along the way. You’ll traipse through creepy cemeteries, experience instant weather changes and experience all manner of hazards and challenges that we hesitate to mention in the name of spoiling the experience.
Dust has received plenty of love throughout its development period and it shows. The gameplay is fun, frantic, but also knows when to pull back to allow the player a little breathing room. This also means that the pacing is just right, tossing you mercilessly into battle one moment and leaving you to chat with townsfolk the next. It’s not all perfect of course (the game relies on outdated save points), but you’re getting a great story here that lasts a fair bit longer than most games available at the same price. Regardless of the nature of its creation, Dust: An Elysian Tail shouldn’t be missed by anyone who fondly remembers the days of yore, or indeed has access to Xbox Live.
9.5 – Excellent. Fun, enjoyable, engaging, and memorable but is missing that little something that will make it exceptionable. People will fondly talk about this for generations to come.