Dust: An Elysian Tail is the latest game to be featured in Microsoft’s ‘Summer of Arcade’ (otherwise known as ‘Winter of Arcade’ in Australia).
Over the past few years this annual showcase has featured some of the most original games from emerging and independent developers, often catapulting them to greater success.
While having been developed by one man, Dean Dodrill, Dust: An Elysian Tail plays like it were developed by a major studio, even if it does have just a few rough edges.
The first thing you need to know about Dust: An Elysian Tail is its just one part of the Elysian Tail series of stories, all of which are set in the land of Falana. You don’t need any prior knowledge of this fictional world to enjoy Dust: An Elysian Tail. The game is an isolated tale from beginning to end, establishing the legend of the titular character, Dust.
Dust: An Elysian Tail opens in a serene forest. Your character, Dust, is stirred awake by a mysterious floating talking sword, which calls itself Ahrah, and its flying Nim-bat guardian, Fidget. With no memory of who he is, or how he came to be in the forest, Dust heeds the advice of Ahrah to head to a small village on the other side of the forest, where the journey to learning Dust’s past will be revealed.
Dust’s journey unfolds at a pleasantly steady pace, with layers of his past peeled back at key moments and hints of who he truly is peppered throughout. The writing in Dust: An Elysian Tail is remarkably solid, and helps each layer of the mystery stay secret right up to the shocking reveal. Working through the game I was constantly looking forward to the chapter’s end, so I could learn more about Dust, and who he was and where he came from. Leading up to the final reveal of his origins I thought I had it all figured out, only to have a massive curve ball thrown at me.
It’s rare for games that have such a traditional JRPG story like the one weaved in Dust: An Elysian Tail to offer up any surprises in the narrative. Dudrill has avoided this pitfall, giving players a truly riveting story from beginning to end.
On the surface, the gameplay in Dust: An Elysian Tail sports an easy to pick up and play hack and slash/beat ‘em up set-up. If you’ve ever played the past Xbox Live Arcade hit, The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai, then you’ll have an idea of what to expect in terms of general gameplay and combat.
Expanding from the basic hack/slash attack keyed to the Xbox 360 controller’s X button, Dust has access to not one, but two unique abilities. The first is the cleverly titled, ‘Dust Storm’. Press Y either on the ground or in the air and Dust will unleash a powerful whirlwind attack. The second unique ability is tied to your companion, Fidget. Pressing B will have her shoot out an elemental projectile at your enemies, which are ether spiritual, fire or electricity.
These two abilities can be combined to unleash an all consuming attack that damages every enemy on the screen. And as the game progresses you’ll certainly need to make use of this combo, and spam it.
While perhaps a drawback of the genre it draws inspiration from, the combat in Dust: An Elysian Tail does fall into the trap of becoming repetitive and at times, dull. Early in the game I experimented with the combat system, trying out different combos and methods on the sparse few groups of enemies I came across.
As I progressed deeper into the game, enemy encounters became more frequent, and so too did their numbers. By this stage I was unable to try out different combinations with my new skills, instead needing to spam the face buttons with the same moves over and over as to not get overwhelmed.
Luckily, Dust: An Elysian Tail sports a rich RPG system that can help sway the combat, putting it a little more in your favour. Defeating enemies, completing story and side quests alike, and racking up a high hit count during combat, will grant you experience points. Earn enough and you’ll level up, and with each level you’re rewarded a skill gem. Skill gem’s can be used to increase your four basic stats; health/attack/defense/Fidget (which dictates the level of damage she inflicts).
Your skills are kept even by limiting how many points can be allocated to each at any time, requiring you to spread out the points evenly. This helps keep the games rather chaotic gameplay balanced, avoiding situations where players are able to defeat an enemy with a single blow, yet die as soon as they’re hit.
Though if you’re still finding things unbalanced in combat you can increase your stats by equipping items. Like any good RPG inspired title, enemies will drop new items you can equip, or you can simply buy them for a fee from any merchant. For a much smaller fee, you can take blueprints of items found scattered in treasure chests and dropped by defeated enemies to the blacksmith, who using your collected materials, will craft new item.
These elements really help shape an almost enjoyable experience right throughout, even when the games starts to reel itself into repetition. This same sense of repetition extends, sadly, to exploring the game world. Outside of having to fight waves of enemies, you’ll need to overcome various environmental puzzles to progress forward. In some instances this can be achieved by acquiring a simple upgrade, like the double-jump to move forward your quest, or more annoyingly, using the Dust Storm ability to lure exploding fruit to a breakable wall.
While I’m sold on the idea of finding new skills to progress further in a game, I found it ridiculously tedious having to constantly lure a specific item to a even more specific point just to have to move forward with the game. At times I felt that these sections slowed the entire pace of the game to a screeching halt. It would have been easier to devise a new ability for Dust, considering the number of times this particular action is used.
While frustrating, it doesn’t deter too much enjoyment from exploring the game world. Dust: An Elysian Tail boasts some strikingly beautiful visuals, all of which have been hand-drawn and animated. The level of detail on show here is remarkable and certainly showcases Dodrill’s artistic talent as both an artist and a game designer.
The game features traditional game sprites, and mixed with the hand drawn, almost painted look, backgrounds makes the game look not unlike a high definition Super Nintendo title. Backgrounds themselves beam with life, with small minute details bringing just that extra bit. Trees will gently sway in the wind while fully animated rabbits hop around the forest floor.
Areas you’ll explore range from the forest you start out in, to snow swept mountains tops and to the volcanic regions of Falana. To added effect, and bring more life into these environments, you’ll often come across some extreme weather conditions, such as torrential rains and blizzards.
Hand in hand with the striking visual design is the games soundtrack. While not overly centric to the experience the score in Dust: An Elysian Tail helps add to the atmosphere. The same can’t be said for the games voice acting, though. Despite some key performances from the actor portraying Fidget and Dust, as well as a few random characters you meet along the way, the voice acting was underwhelming, and the actors failed to sell me on their performance.
The games striking art style will draw you in, and the games deep, though often repetitive, gameplay will have you staying for a lengthy period of time. Dust: An Elysian Tail has plenty of side quests to keep you busy once you’re finished with the main story, as well as having the ability to re-visit any of the locations to explore new areas in search of treasures and secrets. There is also a challenge mode to test your combat skills.
For an Xbox Live Arcade title, the game is a surprisingly full and complete package. With some issues concerning pacing and repetition aside, there is plenty about this game to enjoy. Dust: An Elysian Tail is a shining star in the action RPG genre.