Review: Dust: An Elysian Tail

DustAnElysianTail

Microsoft calls its annual downloadable game event The Summer of Arcade, but this year, they could just as easily have called it The Summer of Artistic Side-Scroller. Two of this year’s five offerings fit the genre. We’ve already talked about the merits of Deadlight, which means it’s time to turn attention to Dust: An Elysian Tail. And we need to start with one simple, jaw-dropping observation: All of the 2D artwork and animation, from the detailed and affecting characters to the lustrous forests, shimmering and luminous caves and blizzard-swept mountains, was created by a single guy.

One person.

Pause and consider that for a moment, preferably after you’ve taken a few minutes to admire the pastel-hued screenshots that trail this review. One guy. I feel like the industry ought to create a creative MVP-type award right now and just perch it on Dean Dodrill’s shelf. In a development landscape where fleets of artists combine to produce triple-A console games that don’t look half as memorable as Dust, Dodrill’s visual accomplishments deserve their due props.

Of course, it wouldn’t mean nearly as much if the game itself were a dog wrapped up in arresting hand-drawn animation. It’s not. Instead, it’s a surprisingly deep action-RPG experience that doubles as a visual feast for the eyes.

The action begins with the apparent resurrection of the mysterious titular hero, a catlike samurai whose eyes are buried under the brim of a hat and tattered sash. The notion of a hero accompanied by a cutesy/annoying flying sidekick and a talking sword (yes, a talking sword) doesn’t necessarily feel like a slam-dunk RPG formula, but damned if these well-drawn characters don’t instantly charm. Even Fidget, who initially appears destined to land a slot in the pantheon of Most Annoying Sidekicks Ever, proves to be hilarious and entertaining, thanks to some surprising adept voice work. The handful of knowing winks at RPG genre clichés (“We’re going on a laundry quest?”) are a great example of the game’s understated sense of humor.

Dust, Ahrah and Fidget prove to be a deadly little combination. On his own, Dust can lay some serious smack down by simply twirling the talking blade upside the head of whatever he’s facing, but it’s even better if you smack the “B” button first to have Fidget toss out an array of small–to-large projectiles. The spinning blades create a Dust Storm that results in some seriously satisfying devastation, both in terms of visual mayhem and hit chains. Toss in an XP-bonus mechanic that awards extra points for every battle you can navigate without taking damage, and the fact that Dust’s combo sets are a little on the thin side no longer seems like a drawback.

You begin the game as an avenging angel, cleansing the lands of nasty monsters that seem to stream from the sides of the screen like a spilled can of Mountain Dew. It isn’t long, however, before the game’s perspective begins to shift in some rather ethically troubling directions, and Dust is forced to confront his role—and moral responsibility—in this war-torn world. The game’s narrative proves a deeply affecting journey, and a lot more thought-provoking than you’d expect from your typical XBLA game. To wit, talking to NPCs in Dust isn’t just another chance to admire the game’s voiceovers, but also a fast track to stockpiling major experience points. You’ll need ‘em to gain gems that upgrade Dust’s four main stats.

Like the LEGO games, Dust features plenty of areas and features you won’t be able to access until you’ve obtained a special object (affinity gem, treasure keys) or ability (crouch sliding), assuring you’ll be returning multiple times. The environs you’ll explore never get old, and you may even welcome the chance to re-appreciate Dodrill’s up, down and sideways landscape architecture.

Dust has its disappointments, starting with the boss battles, which are generally about as epic as whipping up a batch of guacamole. Most of the boss enemies Dust will fight aren’t even that much bigger than he is, even though it seems like they should be. Assuming you can master the art of parrying, they fall quickly to the exact same types of attacks you can use to clear out a 10-run-of-the-mill-monster bum-rush attack. Which, incidentally, is a lot more likely to overpower Dust than some of the boss attacks.

In true RPG fashion, Dust can purchase or find blueprints for weapons and magical objects, which he can then enlist the help of the realm’s smoldering female blacksmith to craft. That’s all well and good, except for the fact that a.) you don’t actually need to create any of these items to survive to the end of the game. And b.) most of the items become available for purchase in the stores almost immediately after the blueprints hit your paws. Given the amount of gold coins Dust will acquire for killing the bazillion monsters that stand between death and self-awareness, buying a dirty pendant is as good if not better than collecting the parts piecemeal.

With its 2D pedigree, Dust is one of those games that seems destined to get lost in the annual shift from the release doldrums of late summer to major-release season, heralded by the arrival of the latest Madden this week. It deserves a far kinder fate—and some serious consideration, both now and when it’s time for us to put together our most-underrated lists in December.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Wonderful/gorgeous hand-drawn art style
+ Compelling characters—even the annoying ones
+ Unexpectedly deep and thought-provoking story
+ Even with a limited attack set, combat feels fluid and thrilling

Cons:
- Boss battles fall far short of epic
- Blueprint/item construction system is ultimately pointless

Game Info:
Platform: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Developer: Humble Hearts
Release Date: 8/15/2012
Genre: 2D RPG Platformer
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

About the Author

Aaron R. Conklin has been writing about games and games culture for more than 15 years. A former contributor to Computer Games Magazine and Massive Magazine, his writing has appeared on IGN.com and in newspapers and alt-weeklies across the country. Conklin's an unapologetic Minnesota sports fan living in Madison, Wisconsin, home of the Midwest's most underrated gaming vibe.