Dust: An Elysian Tail, is the first title from indie developer Humble Hearts, a studio consisting only of animator-turned-designer Dean Dodrill. It is the last and final offer from the XBLA 2012 Summer of Arcade showings.
Gameplay focuses on sidescrolling exploration and fast-paced combat, similar to Castlevania and Metroid games of the past, and includes some RPG elements to liven things up. Players visit and re-visit areas as they acquire new abilities that allow one to traverse new types of terrain and bypass certain obstacles.
The story follows Dust, a swordsman who wakes up in the forest at the prompting of the Blade of Ahrah, a talking sword. The sword informs Dust that he must embark on a quest, though the stakes and the nature of the quest have slipped the sword’s mind. Dust, having no knowledge of who he is or what he had been doing prior to his forest nap, decides he has nothing better to do and agrees, hoping the quest will eventually answer questions pertaining to his identity. The two are accompanied by a fairy-like creature named Fidget, the loud-mouthed protector of the Blade of Ahrah, who tags along in hopes of getting the sword back when the whole questing business is finished..
ASHES TO ASHES, DUST TO AWESOME METROIDVANIA
Those Dusty Good Looks - Dust: An Elysian Tail unbelievably beautiful. In still shots, the game’s visuals evoke a strong storybook vibe. Locations and backgrounds are beautiful and stunning. None of this is lost in motion, either. The animation is top-notch. Motions are smooth and everything is perfectly realized. From wind-blown low hanging vines, to a fire casting a soft, flickering light in a cave, the art assets put players in the right mood for adventure. Such visuals would be striking and impressive from a much larger art team, but to see them come from one individual is just astounding.
Music for Your Furry Ears - The game’s music goes with well with the art style and each specific location. None of the tracks stand out as particularly memorable, but each one serves to set the scene better. Sound effects, apart from one or two specific attack noises, successfully communicate what is occurring at any given moment in a way that doesn’t break the atmosphere.
Hoppin' Combat - Fighting in Dust: An Elysian Tail is a somewhat frantic affair, in a good way. The game places a lot of emphasis on trying to chain successful hits together into a combo, which nets you an experience bonus. To this end, you have a relatively small pool of moves, each which serves a very specific combat function. Each move is easy to execute and has a clear application in racking up combos or generally surviving. In addition, you have access to the Dust Storm ability, which allows you to whirl your sword around with reckless abandon. Seriously. If you do it for too long he eventually hits himself with his own sword. Using this in conjunction with a few attacks that your companion Fidget receives can create devastating effects that send the hit counter skyrocketing. An energy bar prevents you from doing this continuously, though. The best way to fill up the bar is to execute normal attacks from your repertoire. This increases the chances of you getting hit, which cancels out the combo currently in progress and forfeits the bonus experience. It’s a system that forces you to balance the risk of losing your current combo and bonus and the reward of continuing to strike. It’s a lot of fun trying to figure out the best way to get high combos.
Treasure Hunts and Easter Eggs. Some of the items found are mandatory for completion of the game and require little to no effort to locate. Another group of items are fairly easy to locate, but ultimately require the player to backtrack in order to obtain, which reward exploration and thoroughness. Some items, however, require the player to make use of clues and hints that are not entirely obvious. Others still require skill and a successful application of one or more of Dust’s abilities. None of these items are mandatory, but finding them gives a very satisfying feeling, and a number of these hunts lead to some great Easter Eggs, which I won’t spoil beyond saying that they exist.
Self-Awareness. I doubt the world was really clamoring for another story about a swordsman with amnesia and/or a fairy companion. Dust: An Elysian Tail, is well aware of this, and isn’t afraid to poke fun at itself and a number of the tropes common to both the story and game genre. It is fun and endearing, and helps the game and story establish their own identity.
BITING THE DUST
No Need to Vary Combat - The combat is fun, sure, and watching Dust dispatch enemies with extreme prejudice is a spectacle in and of itself, but it all becomes tiresome as the game progresses. Ultimately, there is one combat strategy that is superior for racking up combos and earning experience points. After the player figures this out, there is no reason to do anything different. In order to leave the reader a chance to figure out this golden formula on their own, I will not list it here. Only a few enemies can stop this stop the end-all, be-all combat strategy, and those are few and far between.
RPG Elements Only Offer the Illusion of Choice - Dust’s fighting ability is governed by four stats: “Attack” determines how much damage Dust deals with his regular attacks, “Health” determines how many hit points Dust has, “Defense” reduces the amount of damage Dust takes, and “Fidget” determines how much damage Fidget’s attacks do when combined with the Dust Storm ability. However, the game limits you from focusing exclusively on just one or two stats, which is off-putting to anyone wanting to play in a very specific way. It’s a nitpick, but I was sad that I could not maximize my defensive score while completely ignoring my attack stat. I had hoped to make Dust an immortal being whose legendary blade was only slightly more effective than a light slap. It’s a roleplaying thing.
The game contains an equipment and crafting system to help players shape Dust into the ultimate warrior for justice. However, this really comes down to equipping the items with the highest number. It’s not often a choice of attack vs. defense, but a choice of 10 defense or 20 defense. There are a few pieces of equipment that try to mix things up and halve your attack in exchange for health regeneration. The effort falls flat, however, when you find another item later that gives a hefty attack boost and the health regeneration bonus.
Either Too Long or Too Short - The game world is a detailed one, with a clear mythology. However, the game is too short to explore this. The game ends up dumping a bunch of info about its world near the very end. There is a lot to explore, and the game doesn’t quite do it justice. The game, if shorter, could continue unburdened by some of this mythos. If longer, the game could have explored the world better.
A Number of Annoying Sidequests - Some side quests involve the aforementioned exciting treasure hunts. Some involve hunting for monster pelts and hoping luck will see fit to actually give you the pelts. They are not mandatory, but they’re not exactly fun, either.
Dust: An Elysian Tail is not a perfect game. If you are not a fan of what some call the “Metroidvania” formula, this probably won’t do much to change your mind. It is certainly impressive that this game from one man, however, a game cannot be evaluated based on how it was created. Still, it is a very fun game, and many of my complaints involve the game not living up to its maximum potential. Even then, there is lots of charm and wit to be found and fun to be had. The game has a typical plot and typical gameplay, but everything comes together so well that the end product is most definitely greater than the sum of its parts.
- Timothy Jablonski