Dust is simply one of the best games worth owning a 360 for...
It surprises me nearly every year with Xbox Summer of Arcade that my favorite games this generation and even Game of The Year came from a small $15 package made by a small group of people or primarily a solo effort like Braid, and Bastion. Dust: An Elysian Tail is no different from this phenomenon and could very well be the best game out this year. If you have a 360 and can stomach the “furry” content of the game, then you should stop reading and start this amazing journey of humor, sadness, and discovery with deep combat, amazing art, and outstanding sound design.
If you are still on the fence, then let me explain a few things about Dust that makes it one of the best games to come out this generation. You play as Dust, an anthropomorphic canine that has lost his memory and encounters a talking sword named Araha, with an orange fox-bat(Nimbat) named Fidget that helps Dust find out who he really is. It might sound like a tired setup but Dust sets up some genuinely interesting turns with the plot thread that keep it deep and engaging as he gains more memories of who he was, and it doesn't follow entirely predictably either which it might seem in the beginning with the games many hints and clues, but the major discovery isn't all it seems.
What makes the journey so enjoyable is the personalities of the characters you meet in Dust, and primarily the three characters Dust, Araha, and especially Fidget are just incredibly well done. Dust is genuinely a very likable character from the get-go, he has a very neutral good-willed manner and just wants to figure out who he is, so he never comes off as a Saint in his encounters but will save whoever is in need in a very natural way; as such, he comes off as very realistic and genuinely interesting to follow. Fidget is the real star of the dialog as she is the primary comedic relief of the story, and will have genuinely funny dialog that is very self aware that it is a game, and if you play many video games, will enjoy the sense of 4 wall humor she brings referencing other video games. She initially may come off as annoying but she grew on me as a “funnily annoying” character along the way as the story intended. Araha the talking sword helps adds the mystery and depth to the story, but the swords philosophical manner occasionally changes to some funny patronizing comments with Fidget. These occasional breaks from their normal manner help make the dialog more funny, or more emotionally connecting as time goes on.
This story is backed up by some surprisingly good voice acting for a game with so much dialog. There are very occasional lapses in the voice acting however they iron out about 10% through the game and you can hardly tell if these voice actors are really armatures. That being said, games with more than a 30x the budget have had much worse voice work than this, and the amount of dialog is staggering for a game of this price point as every conversation with each character is always in full speech.
The gameplay in Dust is best described as Devil May Cry in 2D with “Metroidvania” style adventure. The primary gameplay mostly consists of a very traditional 2 melee with 1 ranged attack setup that many action-adventures use with an emphasis on melee combat. However Dust mixes this “X, X and occasionally Y” style combat by integrating combo moves with Fidgets ranged attacks, and introducing enemies that have to be dealt differently according to the situation. Fidget does this fairly anemic attack that is a ranged projectile that hardly does any damage, but in combination with Dust's “Wind Storm” which causes his blade to act like a windmill and breaks the many projectiles into hundreds of projectiles that fly towards the enemy creates a very effective attack. However the projectile uses up a meter that is tied to your dodge meter so Dust cannot constantly barrage his enemies with thousands of flying projectiles unless you understand how the combo system works. The meter that takes up both dodging and the projectiles replenishes with normal blade attacks Dust commits. So the idea would be to chain up a combination of projectile combo attacks, and normal combo attacks in a string in order to produce a very devastating string of attacks. However different enemies constantly mix up the gameplay forcing you to use different tactics. Some enemies can't be actively hurt without using the counter system which is attacking an opponent right before the enemy does an attack, therefore stunning him. Some enemies blow up in close proximity, forcing you to back away. There are many other varieties that forces you to change up your attacks and prevent the combat from getting repetitive too quickly. Dust follows the Devil May Cry style of enemy attacks which make it fairly obvious for anyone to notice an attack while focusing on it, causing dodging to be easy to execute correctly, and making hits on you fairly obvious that it was your fault.
The rest of the game is projected in this Castlevania style over-world but with more RPG elements. Dust can level up different factors like health, defense, projectiles, and attack over the course of the game but cannot focus directly in any one area, thanks to the fact that each upgrade of the factor must be within 4 upgrades of the other factor. An interesting decision that limits choice, but ensures that you have at least a somewhat proper build going into each level. Dust can also purchase and craft different items that boost his various stats, adding a loot-lust element in the game that is very effective in pulling the player in, even after he has beaten the game.
The maps are representations of different areas in the world, and each with have it's separate map that you must navigate, but will tell you if you can go north, east, south, or west, or you hit a dead end in the process. The map is very clearly labeled with defined legends of objectives, treasure, stores, save points, and other points of interests making it easy to use. A single gripe is that the map will not mark which treasure chests are already open, causing you to recheck opened chests to clear an area of it's treasures. The game will also restrict access to certain treasures around the map, thanks to a lack of an ability like hanging off vines or sliding through holes which are gained in the future; thankfully the game clearly defines these places as intended for revisiting later, saving much time and frustration. Other non-combat elements of the game involve some light platforming and puzzle solving which mostly revolves around getting a bomb that grows from a plant into a designated wall that can only be blown by that bomb. These do help break up the action and are never entirely too difficult.
Did I mention this game looks really really good? Of course some might be unable to stomach the “furry” anthropomorphic animals that are portrayed, but that's their loss. The game is amazingly rendered in every fashion that includes multitudes of diverse environments and weather effects that keep the art fresh and intriguing. There's more than just one moment in the game where I just wanted to keep Dust in place and simply just watch the backgrounds and neutral effects that go by. A staggering amount of attention to detail went into the art, including subtle depth of field simulation involving the backgrounds vs the plane the character causing your eyes to naturally focus to the plane Dust is walking on, without compromising the detail behind him. Fantastic subtle use of bloom and small details such as that, make it a very enjoyable game to both watch and play. The amazing technical thing is that I suspect the games models are actually rendered in 3D, however the animations do not present themselves in the awkwardly super smooth motions, and model rendering that 3D models tend to have, and make it seem like that the characters in dust are drawn sprites. That is an amazingly difficult feat to pull off and many games haven't ever come close to where Dust with it's level of detail and quality.
Are there any problems with Dust? Not many worth mentioning. Some of my experiences were that near the end of the game, the combat got so crazy that it was hard to tell where Dust was and which enemies were attacking him, but that was in pursuit of a 1000 hit combo and didn't have much of that problem once I stopped perusing it. I also entered a situation where I required the fire projectile from Fidget and haven't picked it up from a Boss fight I already defeated in the past. Boss battles can sometimes be balanced to be a bit more difficult than they are currently, but I recommend that any veteran action player who finished Ninja Gaiden or Devil May Cry to start on the “Tough” difficulty level for a greater challenge. Other than that, and the slight map issue and the very occasional doubts of the quality of voice acting in the beginning, there is no significant problems to Dust.
Removing the fact that most of this is made by one man, and removing if you are a furry and will have a bias for it, or if you hate furriers and have a bias against the game; Dust: An Elysian Tail is one of the best put together games to come out this generation. Its combination of simple yet deep combat, great story, great writing, jaw dropping graphical detail, voice work, and music make it a very simple reason why it's one of the best games this generation, and for $15 you'd be crazy to not at least try it out.
(Final Thoughts: This game is easily worth at least 2x more than it costs. Many $60 games do not deliver the level of story, presentation, and gameplay satisfaction that Dust brings.)