Dust: An Elysian Tail: A Perfect Storm
As XBLA titles go, I’ve never been too pushed on them. Sure, we get some great games like Bastion or The Walking Dead series, but the more obscure games often fall through the cracks as less-than-stellar titles tend to take up space above them. However, this is not the case for Dust...it’s a damn fine game, probably my game of the year so far, it’s a real treat and a fine surprise.
Let’s get the obvious ‘issue’ out of the way: this is not a furry game, this isn’t like Sonic getting down with an underage human girl. This is just using an art style that’s different, and different in this case is great. It’s a game without the boring sameness of humans, but you end up just not noticing, because everything in this game’s style, the world and the characters, even the enemies, are all integrated so well that they just become so normal that it’s a welcome change. So get the ‘furry’ perception out of your head now, this is a damn fine game, so fuck the notions you’re having, and read on, because it’s worth playing. Think Final Fantasy IX in concept, fun, but with a vastly different art style.
Dust begins with our character...Dust, awaking in the middle of a forest, and meeting the Ahrah, one of the five swords of Elysian that are called to great warrior heroes. It tells him that it was drawn to him to help him in his quest...the only issue being that Dust doesn’t know what this quest is, as his memories have mysteriously vanished. He is then joined by a Nimbat named Fidget, who is part of a clan that protects the Sword of Ahrah, who wishes to return the sword back to its original location. The three set off on a grand and oftentimes dark adventure that traverses the entire land, to defeat the darkness that has spread into every crevice of the world. It turns monsters into hyper-aggressive monsters, and even infects some more powerful beings. Dust must find the source of the darkness and put an end to it, but will the discovery of who he truly is be a detriment to his cause? Play the game to find out, I’m not even joking; the story is that good. It’s got some great moments, the characters work well together, the conversation scenes between characters have an element to them that we’ve rarely seen from games...like we can actually believe that these characters exist in their world. They have great back-and-forth moments that are genuinely funny or heartbreaking, depending on the scene, and it’s nice to see that the effort put into the script of an arcade game resulting in such high quality writing and character development that even triple A titles can’t ever seem to manage.
Dust looks incredible. The art style alone gives this game a lot of flexibility, but the fact that the game is awash with varieties of different levels makes it a beautiful game to play. The style is so interesting, in fact, that at the moments where the camera zooms out in certain areas; it all looks so colourful and intriguing that you’ll lose yourself in the world entirely. Be it the lush, roving forests and field, to the blacked-out caves you have to light with special bombs, the game never fails to disappoint, as it utilizes every colour possible. The characters, monsters and attacks are all extremely detailed, thanks to the backdrop being distinctly 2D, while they are all slightly 2.5D, showing off a major difference, Dust looks the same in cutscenes as he does on screen, thanks to the simple-yet-effective style that was taken with the game...yes, that includes the animalistic design of the characters dammit...and it’s just pleasant to look at. It’s a colourful palette that your eyes can genuinely enjoy; mixing up the colour schemes with the themes of the areas you visit. There’s a slight issue with the more animated cutscenes later in the game, but it seems to have been a budget thing more than anything else. Still a pretty game though, very eye-catching and distinctive.
In terms of gameplay...dust is just sheer fun. It’s a 2D sidescrolling adventure, with a few cues taken from RPG games, there are platforming sections too. The X and Y buttons are designated to combat, X for normal attacks, and Y for the Dust Storm ability, that, when held too long, can damage Dust, which can by mixed with the abilities of Fidget, whose long range attacks are assigned to the B button. You can unleash some seriously insane combos with the Dust Storm + Fidget attack combinations, or simply mix the X and Y attacks to create certain interesting and handy combos. The A button is used to jump, so that’s pretty simple. The fact of the matter is, because the combat is so simple, its fun to mess around with, actually making the player push for more combat to see just how high of a combo they can get in one go. The higher the combo counter, the greater the overall experience you’ll gain, allowing you to level up faster. If your combo gets broken, you lose the bonus XP, so you have to be on alert, and know how to counter...which you do by holding the X button just as an enemy attacks, staggering them and allowing you to strike back. The level-ups grant you a point to put into the four available slots: Health, Attack, Defence and Fidget. Each boosts the respective attributes of said slot, and gives you an edge in combat as the game goes on. There are also challenge-areas spread throughout levels, which grant you cool loot and provide a challenge; to get through them as quickly as possible while achieving the highest score possible. This isn’t like other challenge modes within games...you can actually get through them if you have the mechanics of the game down, which are simple enough, and the difficulty lies not within beating the challenges, but topping your score. Normal enemies vary in difficulty, they tend to be more sword-fodder in large numbers, but there are some pretty diverse enemy types that will keep you on your toes, a lot of whom have their own weaknesses and openings that you'll have to exploit in order to defeat them. Bosses don't skip out on this title either, and while they can be fun, you could also say that they're too easy once you get a hang of the controls. But they do have some cool moments and they can be interesting to fight, the real challenge is fighting them and keeping your combo counter from dropping by avoiding damage, it's kind of a self-set challenge, but it's not a terrible thing to have in a game.
On top of all of that, there are also items and accessories that you can obtain by defeating enemies; some are items that can be used to forge bigger and better trinkets, armour and rings if you have the necessary blueprints. These drop randomly off of enemies or can be found in the many, many treasure chests that are scattered throughout the levels. The chests are opened with keys that can also be found in secret areas of the game, along with other cool bonuses, so there’s a fairly intricate and deep exploration system which allows you to backtrack and get the bits and pieces you’ve missed, and even level traversal has an element of platforming, as getting through areas requires you to think, in ever-increasingly difficult manners, of getting to the next area. It’s a fun system to have in place, and it isn’t even the end of it. You can buy and sell items at the local vendors, and complete side-missions for the locals in order to gain great XP and get stronger trinkets and items to help you on your way. You’ll have to do a bit of backtracking, but it never feels like too much trouble, as the levels are designed in a pretty tight way, with some deviations accessible through abilities obtained later in the game. However, the only real issue here is that when Dust gets hit by an opponent, he does fly backwards and it takes him a second or two to get up, coupled with the fact that there’s no run function, Dust just saunters along through the levels, only picking up speed when he’s laying waste to enemies. The platforming sections suffer a little too, with the controls for jumping just being a little sticky and finicky at times, but it usually comes from trying to do too much at once.
The music, voice acting and even the combat sounds are amazing. The music swings between area-appropriate tunes to orchestral scores during bigger moments really contrasts well, and even during cutscenes, the music suits the moment perfectly. The voice acting truly is top-notch, with every character feeling like they’re part of the world, the actors read the lines with conviction, the banter between characters is highly enjoyable, and there’s never really a moment in the entire game that I can say I didn’t enjoy when it comes to the conversations. It feels so natural, so flexible, so connected, that it’s hard to fault it in any way, allowing the characters and the world to really resonate with the player on an emotional level. Enemies tend to have distinct sounds, areas on a map have their own contrasting music and ambient noises, it just works.
Look, I love this game, it’s fresh, new, exciting, has an intriguing story, it’s own distinctive art style and world, fun characters, a mix of dark and fun themes, voice acting worthy of any top notch game, and is just frigging incredible. It submerges you in its world and keeps you coming back for more, it’s just that good. This is one of the defining XBLA titles of this gen, it doesn’t just deserve praise...it deserves its own series of games to follow up on this one, or at least co-opt the stylistic choices it took.
· Amazing story
· Excellent voice acting
· Great music
· Fun and deep combat system that is simple to grasp
· Bright and colourful art style
· Lengthy title at about seven hours as standard (I nearly wrung fifteen out of it)
· Level designs keep you coming back to discover more
· Character-interactions are enjoyable
· World is expansive and interesting, immersion is a guarantee
· Platforming can be a little janky
· Some longer cutscenes suffer from a kind of poor animation
· Boss fights can be a little disappointing
WTF? Moment: A talking sword won’t tell you who you are, but you have to listen to it tell you what to do? Even without a memory, I’d still think I was tripping balls.