Dust: An Elysian Tail comes to you as the last downloadable title in the XBLA “Summer of Arcade” program. Developed almost entirely by one man, Dean Dodrill, the game is a 2D sidescroller based on exploration and combat that draws influence from Japanese storytelling and aesthetics. It certainly sounds enticing, but is it a fantasy adventure worth undertaking, or will it sit in your XBLA games list collecting virtual dust? Read on to find out.
Dust is set in a fantasy world populated exclusively by anthropomorphic animals. Think Kung Fu Panda or Sly Cooper. It tells the story of a mysterious warrior named Dust, who wakes up one day with amnesia. Before long, he finds an ancient sword imbued with great power, gains the aid of a small, flying, squeaky-voiced creature named Fidget, and is tasked with saving the citizens of the land from a mysterious evil that may be related to his own dark past.
If that sounds like fantasy 101 to you, it’s because it is. To be honest, the first hour or two of Dust’s story is fairly slow and uninteresting, though it does manage to pick up eventually. Soon, a villain is established, questions begin to get raised, and character arcs begin to develop quite nicely. Although it doesn’t often break conventions, Dust’s plot is ultimately satisfying and well-rounded. It’s a shame, then, that the storytelling itself is more heavy-handed than a prizefighter. The game is overly wordy, putting the player in frequent and drawn-out conversations that often take time explaining the most obvious of things. Worse still is that these conversations pause the game and exist within their own ‘narrative world’ like many other RPGs, causing a disconnect from the gameplay and occasionally harming the game’s pace. The dialogue is at least fully voiced by competent actors, and it can be skipped for those with thin patience. At the end of the day, Dust‘s tale is still interesting enough to get you through the game, though it won’t win any awards for delivery.
The gameplay of Dust will be very familiar to anyone who has ever uttered the word Metroidvania. Taking the form of a 2D sidecsroller, the game’s world is nonlinear and houses many hidden secrets, some of which you’ll need to return to once you’ve gained a specific power later on. A few puzzles will also be encountered throughout the game, which require you to experiment with Dust’s abilities in smart ways. Exploration and puzzles aren’t as plentiful as the combat, however, which takes center stage with its flashy move-set and numerous combatants. Taking cues from Devil May Cry‘s combat, Dust can perform several physics-defying maneuvers that allow him to dodge effectively, perform deadly sword combos, and hurl himself and/or his enemies into the air. The only real problem with the combat is that there’s just a bit too much of it. It seems that in every room you enter, there will be a few dozen enemies that need dispatching, and although the combat is fast and satisfying, it does begin to get stale after a while. Also, if there are enemies near a room’s exit, the path will be sealed off until they are defeated, which certainly gets aggravating at points. The save points can also be widely spaced out towards the end of the game, forcing you to replay significant content if you die. Also, let it be said; the Necromancer enemy, who spawns zombies and can only be harmed by magic, is a colossal pain in the… tail.
Dust incorporates light RPG elements into its design. Defeating enemies will give Dust experience, which allows him to level up and boost certain stats. Armor and other items can be found within the environment, as can materials, which can be taken to a blacksmith to forge special gear and equipment. Finally, you’ll need to keep an eye out on Dust’s health, occasionally making him scarf down a health item. These RPG elements don’t drastically change the Metroidvania formula the game is based on, but they do help to add some customization and freedom to what would otherwise be a rigid experience.
It must also be said that there’s a lot to do in Dust. Simply completing the main quest will take you around 10 hours and will only leave you with a little over 50% in terms of completion status. There are a ton of sidequests, secret locations, and extra areas in the game, meaning that you could squeeze a lot of mileage out of it. Considering the XBLA price tag, you’ll certainly be getting your money’s worth.
The element of Dust that undoubtedly stands out the most is its breathtakingly lush visuals. Looking at screenshots does not do the game’s fluid animation and vibrant colors any justice. Don’t be surprised if a friend walks in while you’re playing and thinks you’re watching an animated Disney film. The animation on display here is flawless, with no single entity in the game’s world sporting animations that look awkward or disjointed. The facial animations are considerably more simple, but it’s understandable given the scope of the game’s dialogue. Great care has gone into the fine details of the game, such as saturated colors after rainfall occurs or lamps and other flimsy objects swaying when Dust performs his signature whirlwind attack. If there’s one flaw that can be listed, it’s that the combat can involve so many simultaneous characters and effects on screen that it can be hard to see Dust at some points. For an XBLA game, Dust looks magnificent and absolutely must be experienced on an HD screen.
Of course, what would a Metroidvania title be without an arresting soundtrack? The musical score for Dust is pleasant without being overbearing. Expect to hear a lot of harpsichords and epic choirs within the lively tracks, which are reminiscent of music from 90’s fantasy games. The sound effects, meanwhile, have a reasonable and believable amount of punch to them, and the menu jingles are simple and unobtrusive. Although the game’s voice actors are generally enthusiastic and fit the characters’ personalities, there’s a very good chance that you’ll find at least one character’s voice to be grating. Fidget sounds like woman on a steady diet of helium, while Dust himself sounds like a depressed and jaded teenager. Keep in mind that voice acting is very subjective, though; I have no doubt that fans of anime, for example, will take a lot more kindly to the performances.
Dust: An Elysian Tale is a solid “Metroidvania” title that is well worth playing for those who are interested. Although the storytelling is cumbersome and the combat can often get repetitive, the game ends up doing a lot more right than it does wrong. If you’re looking for a sidecroller that looks nice, plays smoothly, has depth, and will keep you busy for a while, Dust is a great way to end the summer. It may not go down in history the way Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night did, but it certainly won’t fade into dust any time soon.
(Xbox 360 Review copy generously provided by Microsoft Studios. Thank you!)
ONLY SINGLE PLAYER SCORE
Story – 7.5/10
Gameplay/design – 8/10
Visuals – 9/10
Sound – 8/10
Lasting appeal – 8/10
Overall – 8/10
Platforms: XBLA (Xbox 360)
Developer: Humble Hearts
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Rating: E10+ (ESRB), 7 (PEGI)