Every now and then, a game is released that has the perfect balance of story, gameplay, graphics, and music, but usually it comes from one of the big game developers. Such games give the player an emotional roller coaster to the point that there’s a sadness when it all comes to an end because you just want to keep playing. Dust: An Elysian Tail is such a game, but it doesn’t come from any of the big developers. (And, yes, that’s Tail, not Tale.)
Dust is at its core a 2D platformer with the addition of gorgeous graphics, fluid combat, exploration, and RPG elements that allow you to level-up your character as you choose to fit your combat style. The game, however, is so much more than the sum of its parts.
Dust is a game about finding one’s identity. The story revolves around Dust who wakes up in a forest patch with a talking sword named the Blade of Ahrah. Dust remembers nothing of his past and struggles to remember anything about what happened to him. He is then found by an adorable nimbat (sort of a flying cat with bat wings) named Fidget, who claims to be the guardian of Ahrah. They agree to travel together to figure out why Ahrah was “called” to Dust and to find out what happened that shattered his memory. As they traverse the world of Falana, they discover that evil creatures are roaming the land, killing the innocent civilians. More than that, they eventually learn the truth about Dust, which leads to a massive climax to try to finally bring peace to Falana and justice to those who would ravage it.
About the Game
The graphics in this game are nothing short of gorgeous. Completely hand-drawn, the backgrounds and environments are bright and very colorful. Even what would otherwise be dark caves are given some life through the use of elements like colorful, glowing plants and bright red lava. Snow-covered mountain scenery yields bright orange on the horizon as the sun sets; and green, grassy fields are complimented with beautiful blue skies. The landscape is dotted with the remnants of massive statues in the background that command your attention and make you want to know the story about whom those statues represent. Even the minor details like ribbons flowing in the breeze and baby rabbits that hop along the grass and make you want to say “Awww…” add so much to the presentation. Dust is a visually stunning game.
Combat is smooth and responsive. Not quite a “button masher” as one might categorize games like Bayonetta or God of War, you can implement button combinations to release some powerful attacks. Even Fidget has some magic of her own that Dust can magnify to release devastation on the enemy.
RPG elements let you apply a skill gem every time that you level up (up to 60) in one of four skills: health, attack, defense, and Fidget. (Yes, you power up her magical skills as well, something that I recommend you do as often as possible.) Other skill sets like luck can be increased through enhanced armor, augments, and pendants that you find along the way.
There is also a limited type of crafting available that allows a blacksmith to create items as long as you have the blueprints, the raw materials, and the money to have that item created. In a very interesting twist, if a merchant doesn’t know about a raw material that you need, you can sell him one from your inventory. He will then learn about that material and provide more to you in the future, often more than you would be able to find on your own as long as you’re patient enough for him to build his inventory.
True to RPG form, the game has a number of side quests that you can do. None of these particularly impact the main story line, but you can get valuable experience points and items to allow you to do some extra exploring. For completionists like me, a lot of time can be spent just on exploration and trying to find those hidden items through out the world. Some of the storylines associated with these side quests add a great deal of emotional depth to the overall story.
The map is another part of the game that deserves some praise. In those areas where you’ve traveled, the map shows teleporter/save points, merchant points, and also where hidden treasure remains. That last part is a vast improvement over games like Shadow Complex, which doesn’t give you any clue where hidden items that you couldn’t find or reach earlier in the game are located. Dust obviously doesn’t tell you where in that section the remaining items are, but at least it lets you know when there is treasure yet to be found in that particular area. This functionality should be at the very least an option in any kind of RPG as far as I’m concerned.
One thing for which I’m truly grateful is that the game does not punish you for grinding. Too many developers have arrogantly taken it upon themselves to decide that we are not playing the game “properly” if we try to level up our characters by revisiting previous levels. I find such an attitude by developers to be insulting. Some prevalent anti-grinding techniques include drastically reducing the XP of lower-difficulty enemies as you progress or increasing the amount of required experience points between levels. Thankfully, Dust doesn’t do any of that. Levels are evenly spread and enemies retain their XP throughout the game. If you want to grind to get to level 60 before you ever get to the last section of Falana, go right ahead. (You’ll probably want to do this by the time you reach the final boss level anyway, as I will explain later.) I even found some sections where, thanks to bumping up Fidget’s powers, I could level up after only five or six minutes of fighting.
One of the options in the game is the ability to free 12 “friends” that are locked up in hidden areas throughout the game. The “friends” are actually characters from other indie games, like Tim from Braid, The Kid from Bastion, and Super Meat Boy and Super Meat Girl. Although there is no compelling reason to free them, they do give you a boost in your health as well as an achievement for freeing all 12 of them. In a clever nod to some of those games, there are elements that emulate or refer to the game that the “friend” comes from. For example, when attempting to free The Kid, the ground builds itself as you walk, exactly like it does in Bastion, another game I highly recommend. To those little additions, I have to say “Well played”.
The strongest parts of Dust are its story and its anthropomorphic characters. The banter between the seemingly serious Dust and the always sarcastic Fidget is a delight and had me laughing on several occasions. (Dust has his own moments of humor as well, usually at Fidget’s expense.) Even the NPCs have their own story to tell. The characters are strengthened not only by expressive faces but also by incredibly solid voice acting for an indie title. You know exactly when characters are happy, sad, worried, suspicious, scared, or angry, and you can feel the emotion that the characters are experiencing. All of these are brought together in a story that has the perfect balance of humor, drama, and even sorrow. As a result you come away with a good story and characters for whom you start to develop a strong empathy.
What’s more amazing about this game is that it was largely developed by one person over a period of three years! Developer Humble Hearts is actually Dean Dodrill. He originally designed the game in 2009 as an entry for Microsoft’s “Dream.Build.Play.” competition and won, which earned him extra cash to develop the game. Other people provided the voices and the music, but that doesn’t make the effort that Dodrill spent any less remarkable. Over three years later, his labor of love was time very well spent.
A Few Dings
There are a few things about the game that tend to be a bit annoying, however. I ran into several instances where Dust would attack behind him, particularly with his Dust Storm attack, instead of at the enemy that he was facing. Whereas it is possible to attack an enemy behind you, most of these particular instances were when I was moving forward and starting my attack. Even if I stopped the attack and started up again, sometimes Dust would still attack behind him, resulting in me getting hit by the enemy that I was supposed to be attacking.
A more trivial issue that would pop up is that as I would scroll through the list of items to either sell or purchase, sometimes the pointer would go wild and rapidly scroll all the way back to the top of the item list. As you progress through the game, the list of items and raw materials that you can purchase gets quite long. For the cursor to suddenly decide to go shooting up the list is mildly annoying.
The biggest annoyance in the game is the final battle. It goes on longer than it should and the final boss has a huge amount of hit points, exponentially higher than any other enemy in the game. (This is why I recommend grinding to level 60 before getting to this part of the game.) What is also annoying in any game is when you beat the boss down to zero only to have a cutscene followed by the enemy going back to full health, ready for another round of fighting. Unfortunately, this cliché is how the final boss battle in Dust plays out – twice. The result is that you’re not glad to have beaten the enemy as a conclusion to the story but rather you’re just glad to finally be done with the far-too-annoying fight.
These dings cannot take away from the grandeur of the whole game. I got more than 20 hours out of Dust whereas those who try to go straight through without exploring will be done in about half that time. Considering the modest price tag of 1,200 Xbox points (roughly $15), this XBLA title offers a great deal of eye candy and entertainment for the price. Dust was very much a labor of love – and it shows. Rarely do I want to start a game over when I’ve finished with it, but I’m eager to play Dust again on the next difficulty level. That alone speaks very highly of any game.
Without question, Dust: An Elysian Tail is one of the best games on XBLA if not one of the best games overall for 2012.
(And, yes, I want someone to make a Fidget plush! Don’t judge me!)
Dust: An Elysian Tail
By Humble Hearts (Dean Dodrill)
Xbox Live Arcade (XBLA) – 1,200 points ($15)
This game was purchased by me and was not provided for this review.