Last year Xbox Live Summer of Arcade pumped out one of the best indie title released on the Arcade, Bastion. It was a beautiful and unique experience, unlike any other. This year Microsoft looks to be bringing out another gem under the name ‘Dust: An Elysian Tail’. Dust will be released 15th August, leaving this game to be the last of the Summer promotion, a wise choice by Microsoft leaving the best until last.
Before I go into detail about the actual game, first I would like to express my appreciation of the games one-man development studio: Humble Hearts, Dean Dodrill. Dean is the sole developer of Dust and has hand-animated, coded and designed the game alone, with help from HyperDuck Music Studios contributing with their stunning musical score. Dust was supposed to be made as an Xbox Live Indie Game. However, on July 7th, 2010, it was announced that Microsoft will be publishing it as an official Xbox Live Arcade title. Putting in 16 hrs a day 7 days a week from his home office, Dean Dodrill has made his dream game a reality, which has taken over the course of three years, even finding the time to learn how to program along the way. As someone who knows just enough about programming to know how difficult it is, I have nothing, but respect for Dean who has created something that is completely mind blowing alone in his ‘one-man band’. With that said, let’s get into the game.
Dust is a breathtakingly gorgeous, seemingly hand-drawn 2D “Metroidvania”-style adventure game. Dust’s first and obviously most striking feature is it’s art style, and as pretty, as the screenshots may seem, visually it looks even better when brought to life on a HD television set-up. It actually reminds me of when I played Rayman Origins for the first time and how my jaw dropped to the ground at first sight. Characters are bursting with life and detail; enemies aren’t your boring typical type, but are given as much design and care as our faithful companions; backgrounds are lavish and full of life. The attention to visual detail stem from a traditional animated film called Elysian Tail, which is currently being worked on by Dodrill. Even playing the game gives a feeling of a classic cartoon with its sleek 2D animations and a stark colour contrast.
Does all the attention to the sprites and hand-drawn artwork come at the cost of polished game-play? Absolutely not. Moving and attacking is graceful and smooth, stringing all those important combo hits together, giving off a highly satisfying experience. I actually find it hard to believe this is a title that stemmed from Microsoft’s XNA program. Proving that Dean Dodrill really is conjuring up some type of magic.
The game takes place in the fantasy world of Falana and puts you in charge of a mysterious anthropomorphized warrior named Dust who has lost all his memories for unknown reasons. Dust must save a village from an invasion of terrifying, but cute enemies ranging from giant rock creatures to teeth-grinding grunts. Luckily, you won’t be alone in your quest, as you have the aid from a sidekick named Fidget (She reminds me of Navi, but less annoying and more funny) and a powerful legendary sword which happens to be capable of talking named Ahrah. Both characters often give helpful advice and disperse a friendly atmosphere, feeling more of a friend/friend relationship than the usual master/sidekick relationship, you would come to expect. The playful vibe is really refreshing and the banter between the characters is great.
Most of the plot will be delivered through some text-only interactions between Dust, Fidget and Ahrah as they traverse the world of Falana. While talking to other characters, the player will often have a choice of dialogue which he/she may select. Sometimes it’s just extra information or background knowledge, which the player can select all options, but other times during the story the player can only select, let’s say, two out three dialogue lines. I’m not sure selecting a particular dialogue line will change the story in any shape or form, but I suggest taking the time and pick with care. I won’t talk too much about the plot because there isn’t that much to say without spoiling or giving anything away, but its based on Dust trying to uncover the truth behind his past, while seeking to saving a village from oppression.
The actual dialogue between Dust, Fidget, Ahrah and other colourful, but quirky (such as the villager whose paranoid about people opening his lost box) characters found throughout the game is funny and a joy to read. I remember Dodrill saying that he’s taking elements from all his favourite games, then integrated them into this and it shows. The exploratory aspects, of Dust is structured like and has a couple of winks to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. That’s not just it though, when you hit an enemy, numbers will jump out from them, indicting the damage you dealt, when double jumping Dust will have wings which appears from both sides very much like Alucard and finally you can equip healing items to the LB button (healing items such as a roasted turkey). You will come across cultural references while playing Dust, such as a merchant, which is a clear nod to the merchant of Resident Evil 4. Even the menu you visit for quest information, items, map and skills remind me of the Legend of Zelda tune when you highlight items in the inventory screen.
At times the game doesn’t take itself seriously and laughs at the scenarios we are so used to seeing in games. For an example, I took on a side-quest which had me searching an area for items for a villager. I eventually found the item, which was bigger than Dust keep in mind, who then prompted to pick it up with ease and store it into his inventory. Fidget calls this out and comments on how stunned she was by seeing this sight. One of many great moments in this game which give me a good chuckle. That’s not to say this game doesn’t take itself seriously at all. There are sad scenes, pulling on the players heartstrings when it wants to be emotional and reminding the player it’s not all just laughs.
The draw which will get people really interested in Dust, is the 2D platforming and fighting. The game takes the Devil May Cry approach in terms of combat by giving you a few combos and expecting the player to learn what they do. The X button performs a normal or light attack, Y button is the heavy attack causing Dust to create a whirlwind by swinging his sword around. You can blow around enemies around or if you want to make things really interesting, you can combine the whirlwind with projectiles, with help from Fidget. At the start Fidget only knows how to create missiles, but later on she learns a whole lot more such, as fire and thunder. Putting together Dusts whirlwind and Fidgets fire, the player can dispatch bad guys with a devastating fire storm. Keep in mind this isn’t a “I win button” though, because the whirlwind can only be maintained for so long. The longer you use the whirlwind the more red Dust becomes which finally harms him, causing the combo score to reset. If the player wants to keep up their combo score (giving a bonus score and experience) they will need to rely on their sword skills and dodging ability.
The player can also parry, causing the opponent to be stunned for a brief moment, giving the player time to heal or go in for the big attack. This can be done by attacking at the same time as your foe holding down the X button as you do so. Dust allows the player to feel truly responsible for the combos they are dishing out, while offering a nice learning curve for newcomers. The attacks chain together nicely, and the inputs comfortably familiar to games like Ninja Gaiden. Pushing XY together is the launch attack, and XXXY in the air will make Dust grab the enemy, who will then smash them into the ground. As mentioned above there’s a dodge attack which can be preformed in the left or right directions by the left or right trigger on the control. You will need to master dodging early on because later in the game times will get tough where its either life or death depending on your skill. The player has a huge amount of control over Dust, which makes the combat and movement really fluid and a spectacle to behold.
There’s a levelling up system, which is very basic and simple. To level up, the player needs to earn experience from quests, side-quests or killing enemies. When you level up, the player can allocate skill points into upgrades to health, attack, defence, and Fidget’s magic. Personally I always go as the Jack of all trades. Dust has plenty of role-playing elements, including item collection (you will always need to keep a good supply of healing items), NPC interaction, levelling up and crafting items from hidden blueprints dropped by monsters or hidden in chests throughout the game.
The game offers four difficulties great for newcomers or RPG veterans. These difficulties are: Easy, Normal, Hard, and Insane. I played normal for my first time and honestly found it quite a challenge, as I never had full health and needed to maintain a steady supply of food. Personally I cannot wait to see how chaotic the game will get on the hardest difficulty.
When it comes to thinking about any negative points about this game, honestly I struggle. Sure, the side-quests are a little MMO with the “go here and fetch this” type feeling to it, but the story wrapped around the questing and the character dialogue makes it a real joy to play. The voice acting for Fidget I found was highly annoying and ended up just reading her text, I’ll also admit the amount of Furries in this game will put people off (and attracting others), but this is all nitpicking and doesn’t reduce the quality of enjoyment in anyway.
With everything said, it’s time to wrap this review up by saying ‘Dust: An Elysian Tail’ will provide many hours of great game-play. I clocked around 15hrs to finish, leaving out many side-quests, challenges, achievements and crafting items, in order to see the end. After finishing up the story, I found myself going back on a harder difficulty and finding those side-quests I missed. Dust may look colourful, cute, and beautiful, but honestly don’t let this fool you because underneath Dust is a much darker tale than the visuals lead you to believe.
I’m not one for giving games perfect scores, but this came pretty close. For me ‘Dust: An Elysian Tail’ is the most memorable game from the ‘Summer of Arcade 2012′ and is right up there with Limbo, Shadow Complex, Braid and Bastion. It’s a title I urge you to try for yourself.