Developer: Humble Hearts
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Dust: An Elysian Tail is one of those games, and what makes it more impressive is the fact that a single developer (Humble Hearts' Dean Dodrill) slavishly devoted years of his life into making one of XBLA's brightest stars after winning the Microsoft Dream Build Play competition. It's a rare breed; a mix of technical 2D brawlers like The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile and Metroidvania platformers set in a colourful feudal Japan-inspired world where anthropomorphic animals are under threat from a mysterious enemy... and themselves.
Frankly, this is what the Summer Of Arcade needed. What Xbox 360 gamers needed, in fact. If you've been unable to sample some of the delightful PC indie games that have been releasing recently, Dust will be the instant cure to your languid summer blues.
Players assume the role of Dust, an improbably-named anthropomorphic samurai who wakes without memories in a woodland glen. For reasons unknown, his force of will summon a magical talking sword, the legendary Blade Of Ahrah, and its guardian: a hovering cat-fairy thing called Fidget. Despite Fidget's high-pitched voice acting threatening to aggravate, some snappy writing and witty banter make this unlikely trio a perfect base for an involved, but not unnecessarily heavy-handed storyline that sees the amnesiac hero discover that perhaps he wasn't quite as heroic in his past life as he thought. Some powerful themes of loss and redemption are balanced by plenty of humour and some fourth-wall breaking asides, and better yet, the exposition never outstays its welcome: putting the gameplay front and centre.
What follows is several hours of Metroidvania-esque platforming through sprawling and expansive levels littered with enemies to kill, keys to find, hidden chests to unlock, some simple puzzles to solve and even unexpected cameos from fellow indie legends (I won't spoil the surprise). Towns bristle with relateable characters who liberally offer subquests to complete, providing numerous optional objectives to explore for powerful equipment, augments and healing consumables. New abilities such as wall jumps, slides and climbs encourage you to push into new areas or revisit those you've already explored, meted out regularly enough to keep the experience fresh but sparingly enough to ensure that you've got enough time to master a mechanic before learning another. Dust is standard exploration platformer fare to be sure, but rises above the vast majority of its peers thanks to the exquisitely detailed environments that beg to be explored to completion and a map that - horror - actually works; broadly pointing out where treasures are to be found and keeping unecessary backtracking to a minimum. Which is a must, because you can roam practically anywhere when you're not chasing a quest objective.
Much rode on the strength of the combat mechanics, since almost every area features a host of respawning enemies, many of whom can fly, attack in enormous groups or tower over your furry samurai. The Blade Of Ahrah facilitates a dizzying range of ground-based and aerial combos, with Dust able to automatically engage targets in mid-air. A dodge dash can be triggered at any time, even aloft, allowing you to evade attacks or relocate behind enemies for a devastating riposte. Holding the X button at the moment an enemy strikes parries their blow, leaving your foe stunned and open to a humiliating beatdown. Most important of all, however, is the ability to trigger a Dust Storm attack at any time, whirling the Blade Of Ahrah like an insane dervish to juggle enemies into the air and amplify weak magical ranged projectiles (courtesy of Fidget) into screen-filling murder clouds.
Brilliantly, all of these abilities can be elegantly and effortlessly chained together into staggeringly long combos. It's responsive to the millisecond, exceptionally versatile and above all empowering, providing you with the tools you need to get the job done against an ever-stiffening challenge. Even the basics, such as a fast but never slippery movement speed and an always-recognisable silhouette have been provided, putting any number of bigger-budget brawlers to shame. More to the point, the cathartic thrill of absolutely ruining a massive army with a thousand-plus hit combo, chained together with dashes, parries and storms, has to be experienced to be believed.
A streamlined RPG levelling, economy and crafting system add enough depth to satisfy, but never detract from the core of addictive exploration and mesmeric brawling. Killing enemies grants Dust experience, bolstered by bonus XP from sustaining lengthy combos, which eventually results in skill gems to bolster attack power, defence, health and magic. Materials gathered from downed foes or regularly-restocked shops can be used to fashion new equipment by finding a blacksmith hidden in one of the more , who's actually a likeable and memorable character in her own right. Though not as deep as a full-fat RPG, these systems provide plenty of extra value, a compelling sense of progression and the power to match a fairly major (but not unpleasant) challenge spike in the mid-game.
As mentioned, Dust: An Elysian Tail also packs some of the thoughtful, oft-forgotten features that make it more fun to play. You can skip through cutscenes or set them to auto-advance. You can resize the GUI to fit your own requirements. Innumerable triple-A studios consistently fail to provide this level of functionality and consideration for player's needs.
What really makes Dust: An Elysian Tail so special, though, is the strength of its world, brought to life by painstakingly detailed hand-crafted artwork. A vibrant colour palette and a varied mix of environments, coupled with a heavy grounding in Eastern architecture and style, make it a continually-exciting and visually arresting place to inhabit. Animated detail-laden backdrops and striking foreground elements complements pin-sharp sprites and some ridiculous particle effects. Characters (even support NPCs and townsfolk) are uniquely designed, pregnant with personality, voiced superbly and sport witty, concise dialogue. Even something as basic as the world map, which could have been a basic and unimaginative affair, can be panned upward to reveal Fidget sitting on a tree branch, roasting an assortment of marshmallows and sausages. It's a testament to one developer's vision, undiluted and uncompromised, utterly glorious to look upon and experience.
A sensational soundtrack seals the deal, adding pulse-pounding urgency or poignant reflection when it's needed most.
You've got to dig deep to find issues with Dust. On the technical side of things, I occasionally noted some slowdown during loading transitions, and encountered a couple of audio issues when talking to shopkeepers (nothing major). But most of Dust's sins are of omission. Most of the bosses are slightly underwhelming, rarely bigger than your own character and rarely providing much of a challenge compared to some of the bigger regular enemies. That said, I appreciate that the aim was to have Dust face off with other champions like himself, as is often the case with Japanese or Eastern games, films and anime series. Worse, however, is the lack of a New Game + mode that can make completion feel a little hollow, or perhaps some multiplayer arenas to make the most of some tricky challenge rooms and thrilling combat mechanics.
Is Dust repetitive? Possibly, especially if you go out of your way to complete subquests and max out your stats. But with combat this sweet, characters this likeable and world so beautifully-realised, I'm not convinced it's possible to have too much of a good thing.
- Exquisite hand-drawn visuals create a gorgeous and engaging world
- Sensational and versatile combat
- Compelling exploration; loads of content, quests and secrets
- A New Game + mode would have been nice
- A couple of technical niggles and uneven difficulty curve
The Short Version: Summer Of Arcade 2012 ends on a spectacular high with a game that offers superb combat, memorable characters and a truly gorgeous world to explore at leisure. Dust: An Elysian Tail may have taken more than three years for Dodrill to create, but the result is time well spent.
The great thing about indie games is that they don't follow convention and they refuse to be pigeonholed... but let's do it anyway in the broadest possible terms. If Fez is 2012's Braid, then Dust: An Elysian Tail could well be its Bastion.