Dust: An Elysian Tail Review
Game: Dust: An Elysian Tail
Developer: Humble Hearts
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Available on: Xbox LIVE Arcade Only
Way back in 2009, a gentleman by the name of Dean Dodrill scooped the grand prize in Microsoft’s “Dream, Build, Play” Challenge, winning a contract to produce a new Xbox LIVE Arcade title, as well as a cool forty grand. An animation artist by trade, Dodrill had spent time working on early Cliffy B endeavour Jazz Jackrabbit, but his true love was designing and bringing to life his own characters in the fantasy world of Elysium, the setting for Dust and a still-in-development Elysian Tail animated movie. Completely free of the constraints that come with licensing and working for The Man, the artist also known as Noogy has been able to spend years working on his projects. Much the same as the stellar Cave Story, Dust is the work of one man.
After spending a few minutes in Dodrill’s world, it isn’t difficult to see why Microsoft put their faith in him.
You play the part of Dust, an amnesia-stricken young chap who, with the help of an ancient talking sword and a motormouthed flying squirrel, ends up embroiled in a mission to save a village from monster-related oppression. If only it were that simple; it soon turns out that there are many more threads to the story, which plays out wonderfully, introducing some surprisingly strong characters, moral dilemmas and Dust’s quest to find out the secrets in his past.
Dust is an excellent Metroidvania-style action platformer, which means that regardless of anything else, Noogy was off on the right foot with me, barely a podcast goes by without a mention of “rpg elements”.
It has the exploratory platform gameplay you know and love, with all of the stuff you would come to expect from the genre: Experience points, levelling up, buying and selling items, opening up more areas on the world map after gaining new abilities, masses of side quests, finding the necessary gems to open colour co-ordinated gates. It is eminently playable and I easily sank in five hours in my first sitting, there is so much to do and it is great fun doing it.
Some areas of the map contain treasures which may or may not be hidden from view and can be opened using keys that are strewn around the world or can be purchased (at a hefty price) from the merchant. It is a huge challenge finding and unlocking all of these chests, but helpfully Fidget, your sidekick, will let you know if there is still an as yet sniffed-out chest in a particular area.
Items are an important factor, a blacksmith is able to forge new weapons, armour and augments for you if you have the right stuff in your inventory and a blueprint to show her how to make it. The way items (and the precious blueprints) are dropped by enemies is highly reminiscent of the Castlevania series, with a higher probability of a downed enemy dropping a crucial pick-up if you are using a luck-enhancing charm in your inventory.
There is a deep and satisfying combat system, with two main ways to attack. Dust can use his sword in a number of combos and special attacks including a superb propeller-style action which lays a multi-hit smackdown on your foes but also doubles up as a means of manoeuvring and manipulating items around the screen to solve puzzles. Beware though, as it has a limited use before you will sustain damage and pass out from all of the spinning. You can perform launchers to fling your enemies into the air, or even use your spin attack to soar gracefully through the sky like a missile. The second means of attack is via Fidget, who can shoot magical projectiles. On their own these are fairly weak, at least until you level up the floating rodent’s abilities using XP. But combine the projectiles with the spinning sword technique and the projectiles increase in number and home in on nearby enemies, an incredible spectacle in some instances that has the screen swarming like a bullet hell shooter.
The main quest should take you about 10-12 hours, but it is doubtful you will have unlocked everything the game has to offer in this time. There is always something to do, whether it is an errand running side-quest, an item gathering sortie, or simply grinding; it is actually fun racking up huge hit combos and returning to places where enemies respawn. There are hidden challenge areas too, something akin to the Boss Rush modes seen in other platformers, where you race against the clock to take down a bunch of critters whilst smashing lamps and avoiding obstacles. Achievement hunters will be pleased too, as there is a decent set to unlock, including some interesting secret ones that are dependent on the moral choices you make during the game.
Visually, the game is mind blowing. It is one of the finest examples of gorgeous, hand-drawn, lovingly animated 2D that you will ever see. The backdrops are wonderful to look at and teeming with life. Butterflies dance around in the foreground, rabbits and deer frolic in the magical woodland. Venturing deep underground sees Dust encounter a stunning Journey To The Centre of The Earth-style cavern, complete with huge, glistening mushrooms and strange, alien flora.
Elysium has a night and day cycle too, and there are also weather effects, teeming rain, dazzling sunshine. The use of light is wonderful, as bright, verdant forest canopies give way to dank, dripping caves where it can be difficult to see without an alternative source of light. The cast of anthropomorphic Elysians and bestiary of gruesome foes are so impressive in their design that it is sometimes difficult to comprehend that they are part of an entirely new universe, dreamed up by one person. There are numerous races, the Usagi Yojimbo-esque rabbit people, the cursed Moonbloods, the loveable country bumpkins that live beneath the surface; all feature beautiful characterization, excellent voice acting, and are animated as fluidly as any two dimensional game you will ever lay eyes upon. The aesthetic style here is reminiscent of prime Disney, of Miyazaki, of other grand 2D experiences like Vanillaware’s classic Odin Sphere, or spiritual cousin Guardian Heroes, the Treasure title that this game instantly reminded me of.
VERDICT: This is a superb finale for another varied and interesting quartet of Summer of Arcade titles, a tradition that has given us the heady delights of Limbo and Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet has given us another classy downloadable title. Since Konami took Castlevania in a different direction, there hasn’t been a decent, original RPG-tinged platformer of this ilk since the Order of Ecclesia game for Nintendo DS. Dust more than makes up for lost time and is a supremely enjoyable, old-school experience that also happens to be one of the best looking games available on Microsoft’s downloadable service. Dodrill obviously invested his well-deserved prize money wisely, and has used his considerable talents to craft a killer debut.