Dust: An Elysian Tail
Microsoft Studios (Xbox 360, PC)
Action RPG, Sidescroller
August 15, 2012 (Xbox 360)
May 24, 2013 (PC)
October 7, 2014 (PlayStation 4)
A digital copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes. While available for several platforms, this review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.
The last several years have seen an increase in games that try not only to be good video games, but also works of art. Titles such as Clover Studios’ Ōkami and the 2008 reboot of the Prince of Persia franchise have proven that art and games can combine to create truly memorable experiences. Dust: An Elysian Tail, developed almost entirely by a single man, is the next game that attempts to break the barrier between games and art, and it succeeds extremely well in its execution.
The game opens with its titular protagonist, Dust, being awoken from his slumber by the cryptically-speaking Blade of Ahrah and its guardian, a nimbat named Fidget. Dust has no idea who he is or why he was sleeping; however, Ahrah seems to know a thing or two about him. Together, the group travels across Falana and helps distressed locals with various dilemmas, all while attempting to uncover Dust’s past. Along the way, Dust finds himself involved in a much larger plot, and must join a fight to save his land.
If the story sounds cliché, that’s because it can be at times. However, the overall plot is really well-written, and becomes more and more engaging the farther it progresses. On top of that, the story is incredibly touching at many moments – I nearly shed a tear at one point – and no event happens without reason. In addition, each anthropomorphic character in the game is unique, with each having his or her own specific backstory and faults; not one character looks or seems like another. In particular, I really liked Fidget’s character, as she always provides sarcastic comic relief (Even going as far as occasionally breaking the fourth wall) while still showing care and love. All in all, it’s evident that Dean Dodrill put a lot of effort into portraying the story he conceived and bringing his characters to life.
Some games tell good stories, but fall short in terms of gameplay; thankfully, Dust does not fall into that trap. The game is a sidescrolling action-RPG, with exploration elements similar in fashion to classic Metroid and Castlevania titles. As players progress through the game’s various landscapes, they will discover new abilities, which can grant access to hidden areas in previous locations. From the standard jump ability to sliding under narrow passages, Dust can utilize a wide array of actions, which come in handy for the game’s platforming elements. The basic controls feel very smooth and responsive, and make navigation both a breeze and fun. Make no mistake, however, as in the game’s later locations, precise timing and jumping are key in avoiding hazards such as spikes and lava pits. All of this together creates something both fun and challenging, and can evoke memories of a time when exploration in gaming was rewarded just as much as fighting.
That isn’t to say that the fighting isn’t enjoyable, however; in fact, Dust‘s combat system is one of the most fun things about the game. The game’s combat is quick and fluid, with an emphasis placed on earning high combos in order to earn more experience points, which can be used to level up health, attack, defense, and so forth. Like the game’s platforming, the combat is easy to grasp but difficult to master, as many powerful enemies in the game require that Dust attacks at just the right time in order to deflect their own attacks, leaving them open for devastating blows with his sword. As Dust and Fidget journey across Falana, the latter will unlock new abilities to use during combat, which, when used in conjunction with Dust’s swordplay, range from balls of light to pillars of fire, and are useful in attaining high combo counts. The amount of attacks that Dust has at his disposal ensures that each battle rarely feels like a chore. Be warned, however: the game’s boss fights can be frustrating, boring, or frustratingly boring. Some spam attacks until Dust is knocked out, while others are far too easy to defeat due to their lack of attacks. While there’s nothing that will make people throw their controllers in rage, the boss battles could have been handled much better than they were.
While the game’s main quest will take players roughly ten hours to complete, there’s still plenty left to do after the story is finished. The majority of non-playable characters in the game offer sidequests that the player can complete, ranging from collecting rare items to finding other characters. These alone add several hours to the game’s lifespan, and even more if the player decides to fully complete the map and hunt down each treasure chest. For those wanting to make Dust as powerful as he can be, the game features a crafting system which allows players to create new equipment by using materials gathered from enemies. In addition to RPG staples, the game offers several test areas that test the player’s speed, strength and agility; while the first few are easy enough to complete, later trials can be very challenging, but also very rewarding, as completion times are uploaded to a global leaderboard, allowing players to try besting their rivals’ times and scores.
As I mentioned earlier, Dust is as much a video game as it is a work of art. Forests and snowy mountains are truly brought to life by Dodrill’s hand-drawn visuals, while characters look fitting of the world they live in, with an overall art style reminiscent of 1990′s animated films being prominent. In addition to fantastic visuals, animations are fluid, especially Dust’s; meanwhile, backgrounds are filled with details as tree branches sway, volcanoes erupt, and snow flurries. The only minor problem I have with the visuals are that while the animated character portraits during scenes are a nice touch, they don’t all seem equal. By that, I mean that some characters – such as Dust – have a lot of detail in their animation and appearance, but others didn’t seem to get as much love, though they still look decent. Again, however, this is only a minor annoyance, and the game’s visuals are otherwise very good-looking.
Also good is the game’s soundtrack, composed by not only Chis Geehan and Dan Byrne-McCullough from HyperDuck Soundworks, but also Alex Brandon of Deus Ex fame. The majority of the game’s areas are accompanied by calm tracks composed of flutes, pianos, and string instruments; meanwhile, during intense battles, the pacing becomes much quicker, with a few tracks featuring energetic guitar riffs. Tunes never feel out of place, and are typically fitting with the events of the area or scene; climbing Archers’ Pass with its epic-yet-catchy theme playing makes it all the more enjoyable. Similar to the soundtrack, the game’s voice-overs are generally well-done, with Dust’s and Fidget’s voices in particular sounding appropriate for their respective characters.
All in all, Dust: An Elysian Tail is indeed a piece of art. The story has meaning, while the gameplay succeeds at combining classic platforming and exploration with fast-paced combat. These, coupled with the game’s great visuals and sounds, create not just one of this year’s most fun games, but one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever played, and not just in terms of art design. Anyone who loves old-fashioned games brought to life by modern mechanics and technology ought to give Dust a shot.
Lots of replayability.
Gorgeous hand-drawn visuals.
Fitting soundtrack and voices.
Lackluster boss battles.
Inconsistent character art.