murdersmash's Dust: An Elysian Tail (Xbox 360 Games Store) review

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Heart-Wrenching, Satisfying, and Just Plain Fun.

Every once in a while, a game comes along with all the ingredients required to make something truly special. What it takes for a game to truly stand tall above the rest, however, is that spark; that personal touch that only someone of extraordinary talent and work ethic can provide to bring those ingredients together. Humble Hearts' masterful creation, Dust: An Elysian Tail, is that game.

Dust, an anthropomorphic blue fox with an unknown background, awakens in a serene, peaceful glade without memory of how he got there, or even what his name is. Before he can even question what is going on, an enchanted, magic sword, named the "Blade of Ahrah", appears before him, pushing him to get up and get moving. Before he can leave, though, the sword's guardian Fidget appears. A flying "Nimbat" with huge eyes and bat-like wings, she soon joins Dust on his quest to discover what has happened. The story that soon develops is a surprisingly dark tale of repentance and self-discovery, with the last couple chapters becoming a heart-wrenching, emotional roller-coaster ride that concluded with me breaking down, crying for way longer than I probably should have. Overall, the writing is amazing. Tons of great game references, fourth-wall-breaking moments, and funny comments provide a bit of levity to what is a pretty heavy and emotional story.

Dean Dodrill's background in traditional art and animation also immediately makes a powerful impression, with the fluid, detailed character animations, and beautiful background art. What really makes the environments stand out, however, is the use of lighting and particle effects. Dense forests come to life with luminescent blue bugs and particles, while fiery volcanic wastelands shimmer and waver through glowing yellow lighting. YouTube videos and screenshots just don't do it justice; you need to see it in action on an HDTV, in-person, to really understand. Years of polish and iteration also begin to show through, with the plants and other things in the backgrounds interacting subtly with your actions.

Dust is lovingly rendered in extreme detail, with his movements and actions hand-drawn frame by frame to deliver every subtle movement, even down to the material on his clothing waving with the repeating movements of his attack stance. Incredible character design and animation is also used during cutscenes, with fully animated and voice-acted characters appearing in close-ups during discussions. This is a really great touch; I feel that it really gets me involved with the conversation at hand.

It doesn't hurt that the voice acting is almost universally excellent, either. The actors and actresses brought in to voice the characters all do a fantastic job. You know how in most games, the various inflections in the voice acting have a stilted, un-natural feel? Well, they absolutely don't in this game. It feels natural, like real people having real conversations. I enjoyed the voice acting so much that I never, ever felt compelled to spam the "A" button to skip forward in any dialogue. This isn't to say that it could have been better, however. There were a couple moments where I felt Fidget's voice was a little TOO abrasive, for example, but these moments rarely ever happened.

Even the music is awesome. Hyperduck Soundworks, who also did the kick-ass A.R.E.S. Extinction Agenda soundtrack, pulled out all the stops on this one. The epic, soaring orchestral arrangements combine with electronic bits, electric guitars, choirs, and even organs to create atmospheric, emotional compositions that were absolutely instrumental in how effective the emotional moments in the story were. The song "Twin Souls", which played during the big reveal of who Dust is was especially heart-wrenching. As for the combat moments, the boss music was absolutely fantastic, and the final piano piece "Gone Home (Journey's End)" which played during the credits, was one of the main reasons I actually cried when the game was all over.

All this stuff is really great to see in a game, but what truly matters in any great game is the gameplay, and Dust: An Elysian Tail absolutely knocks it out of the park. The combat is fluid, fast-paced, and responsive, with Dust wildly flying across the screen, effortlessly chopping the enemies to bits. Combat is basically a two-button system, with "X" applying basic sword attack combos, and "Y" controlling the "Dust Storm" ability, in which Dust twirls his sword in his hand to create a whirlwind of steel. The coolest part of the combat is when Fidget joins in, though. Hit "B", and she'll unleash a weak magic attack that can be combined with the Dust Storm to create a screen-clearing torrent of energy that allows you to build up massive hit combos, which also reward bonus XP.

Did I mention there was an XP system? Kill monsters, and build up huge combos for bonus XP, which feeds into the stat system. Each time Dust levels up, a new stat gem is rewarded, which can be applied to a specific stat (Health, Attack, Defense, Fidget). Killing enemies also drops materials used for crafting, in which blueprints are used to craft some pretty powerful items that buff your stats in many different ways. Yes, there's even CRAFTING stuffed into all this.

The levels are also crammed with secrets and multiple paths to explore. Designed in a similar way to the Metroidvania-style games, Dust unlocks new abilities throughout the game that allow him to explore new areas that weren't accessible before. There's even challenge trials hidden in the levels, which are basically obstacle courses that require a specific trick or method to successfully complete with the highest score.

Overall, the game's pacing is just fantastic. There's plenty of great story moments spaced out to just the right timing, lots of combat options, the challenge trials, and secrets to find. There was always something interesting and new to do, and I never found myself bored during my two 15-hour playthroughs (one for normal difficulty, one for tough mode + max completion percentage).

It's games like this that we all need more of. With tons of amazing game-play elements, beautiful graphics and music, fantastic voice-acting, and powerful writing, Dust: An Elysian Tail provides a satisfying story and gaming experience with that personal touch that only a tiny indie studio, and several grueling years of hard work, could create. This is absolutely a game worth playing. Don't miss out.

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