When promising indie title Dust: An Elysian Tail received the distinction of winning Microsoft’s “Dream. Build. Play.” challenge in 2009, it received the console manufacturer’s official backing, and now, three years later, holds the considerable honor of topping off and closing out the 2012 Summer of Arcade promotion. Not only that, but it comes on strong and impresses immediately with extremely light-hearted and colourful visuals, and an equally tongue-in-cheek sense of humor.
Developer Humble Hearts, being a one-man show, exemplifies what an indie developer can achieve in terms of eye candy and smooth and fluid gameplay. He’s crafted a solid side-scrolling action title, with character designs that should well please fans of older anime (I’m talking “throwback-to-the-’80s” old). But next to all this, Dust: An Elysian Tail manages to hit a sweet spot by offering a simple yet undeniably entertaining experience with a bit of flair and a whole lot of button-mashing swordplay.
A Heart of Dust
Dust emulates the Metroidvania style as well as the best of them, even though the similarities lie beneath the surface. While visually not very reminiscent of its old-school counterparts, Dust does utilize a similarly basic, rudimentary 3D map system, with treasures, vendors and save points highlighted for convenience, and weaves backtracking into its gaming fabric by having areas within levels remain inaccessible until the proper power-up can be obtained, such as the wall cling or ground slide (the first time I saw a wall that required the ground slide to pass underneath, I found myself hopelessly wishing for Samus’ patented Morphball technology).
Combat doesn’t get overly cerebral, and combos remain relatively low-level, though the game does a good job of providing players with a system that makes you feel immediately accomplished and badass. There is little to do beyond utilizing your two attack buttons (X to slash, Y to twirl your sword causing a tornado-like wind vortex). Your flying sidekick Fidget can also provide a low-power projectile with a press of the B button – mostly useless on its own, it becomes a devastating screen-filling AoE attack when used in conjunction with Dust’s sword spin. A small number of combinations of the above attacks are possible, but the real fun is when you effortlessly chain simple attacks together into 300+ hit combos, flowing left and streaking right across the screen, killing as you go. But don’ let this fool you into taking the game for a piece of cake; later levels present some truly frustrating challenges, due to the presence of overly challenging foes amid throngs of simple kill-drones, and the dearth of save points – be prepared to restart from your last save over and over because you simply couldn’t reach the next checkpoint in time.
And there’s plenty to kill. The game never suffers from a shortage of enemy blade-fodder. Enemies are designed with the same aesthetic sensibilities in mind as the rest of the game: colorful and interesting to look at. While I distinctly enjoyed some of the more mischievously twisted designs early on in the game, later levels fail to keep up the same sense of wonder, often offering up long stretches and screen after screen with nothing but hordes of the same two or three enemy types.
Dust in the Wind…All Right, No More “Dust” References
One of the most impressive things about Dust is the fact that, despite having been made literally single-handedly, it looks as if a whole team of talented individual spent time perfecting its look and character designs. This is especially true for the main trio of the enigmatic, brooding Dust; the nervously chittering Fidget; and the talking, damage-dealing, advice-giving Blade of Arah. Each character is represented by screen-filling, lavish artwork during cutscenes, and fully voiced to boot. Surprisingly, especially in the nuanced case of the high-pitched, neurotic Fidget – which would have been an easy character to make a misstep on -, the voice acting is enjoyable throughout.
It’s easy to fall in love with the entire cast immediately; even the story crutch of the amnesiac protagonist is forgivable in light of the characters’ strong personalities. Much of the dialog is delivered through self-referential good-natured humor; a personal favorite moment that made me laugh out loud was a quest given in the village of Mudpot – where all characters talk with a distinctly hillbillyish twang – by a cantankerous old villager, who required I find and return his “hitting stick” to him, so that the “hitting could commence”.
But don’t mistake Dust for nothing but a child’s romp through fairy-tale kingdoms! A surprisingly dark storyline guides the characters through a land caught up in civil strife – armies marching to war, nature and creatures of the wild mobilizing attacks against townsfolk and villagers, all set against a backdrop that tells a story of racial disharmony and oppression. So much for the “Saturday Morning Cartoon” theory…
While Dust is a Metroidvania-style side-scroller with hack-n-slash combat, it also incorporates some light RPG elements. Townsfolk will give the player quests (usually fetch or gather quests), blueprints allow the assembly of individual parts into new combat gear and equipment, merchants carry a stock of supplies from which to build your armory after you’ve provided them a sample of the material, and Dust himself earns experience in battle, allowing him to level up his attack, defense, health, or Fidget’s combat ability.
The Final Verdict
Dust: An Elysian Tail shines on many fronts, and is certainly worth checking out, whether you’re a seasoned veteran who enjoys great gameplay, or represent the younger set who is happy with beautiful visuals and likeable characters. Its combat system absolutely oozes fluidity, and it offers a good sense of exploration, along with engaging story sequences and humorous and mature storytelling. However, you have to be prepared to hit a few rough patches about halfway through when the difficulty ramps up severely, and expect to slog your way through repetitive screens filled with swarms of enemies, made more severe by being forced to replay sections over and over due to dying before reaching a checkpoint. Though if a bit of a challenge doesn’t scare you off, then you can’t go wrong with this; Dust is a great addition to Microsoft’s XBLA stable, and waves a victorious farewell to the Summer of Arcade.