Platforms: XBLA (reviewed), Microsoft Windows, Linux, OS X, PlayStation 4, iOS
Dust: An Elysian Tail has been in development for some time now. It was originally designed to be released on the indie games section of Xbox Live, but ended up winning Microsoft’s Dream. Build. Play Challenge back in 2009. This victory won the game a contract to be released as an official Xbox Live Arcade game. Another notable fact worth mentioning is that Dust was almost completely designed by one man, Dean Dodril. On those merits alone Dust is an incredible feat, but can it truly stand with the biggest XBLA games or was it better left as an indie release?
As the game begins, Dust (our hero) awakens in the middle of a wooded area with no recollection of who he is or what has happened to him. Shortly after coming to, he is greeted by a talking sword name Ahrah, who has come to lead Dust on a journey of self-discovery. Ahrah is accompanied by a flying orange nimbat named Fidget, who soon becomes Dust‘s trusty sidekick. If you couldn’t tell already, the story of Dust is a little cliché. We’ve seen the amnesiac story so many times before, but this one ends up being pretty decent, all things considered. One aspect of the story that I was pleasantly surprised by was just how dark it got at times. There is much discussion and focus on death and it gives the game a real sense of soul.
While the story at its core is decent, the voice acting almost pushed it over the line to bad at times. It really did seem like a majority of the actors had the talent to make this story shine, but most ended up playing their parts so dramatically that I couldn’t take it seriously. The worst offender of the over-dramatic (and just plain annoying) is your little buddy Fidget. She tries far too hard to be funny and most of the time that falls flat. There were a few times where she’d crack off a line that made me smile or chuckle, but more often than not I was wishing she’d just pipe down. Even with the complaints I have about the voice acting, it is still quite impressive to see an XBLA game fully voiced and adds quite a bit to the experience, for better or worse.
The main focus of Dust is combat. In the beginning, the hack and slash combat was enjoyable and satisfying, but by about midpoint in the game I found myself rather bored with it. This is due in large part to the combo system, or lack there of. You’ll learn every combo that is possible in the tutorial area of the game. You have something like five total attack options and there’s no way to unlock or learn new moves at any point in the game.
You can also utilize Fidget in combat. She can shoot out projectiles and when used in combination with an attack you have called “Dust Storm”, you’ll be able to attack multiple enemies with some pretty flashy moves. These can be fun for a while and really rack up the hit counter, but even with three different projectile types to find in the game, it still gets played out pretty quickly. With that said, from a technical standpoint the combat is just fine, but the limited options hold it back from being great.
One aspect of Dust that I really wasn’t fond of was the platforming. While it wasn’t inherently bad, it did get frustrating at times. There are times when you’ll jump and just completely whiff when you thought you had it timed perfect. This is fine in most cases as there is no fall damage and you can just try again, but there are also times when you are either being chased or there are environmental hazards and your jumps need to be perfect. The last third of the game is filled with instances like this and ended up being a bit of a pain to get through at times.
At its core Dust is an action-RPG. However, it’s really only an RPG in the sense that you collect XP and level-up because after that there is absolutely no depth. Upon leveling up you’ll have very limited options, which was pretty disappointing. You’ll get a “skill gem” with each new level that you can use to increase your health, attack, defense or projectiles (Fidget‘s attack). That’s it. This is where a nice section of combo unlocks would have been great, but sadly that wasn’t to be. Another interesting choice is that no one skill can be more than four points higher than the rest. So if you want to go all-in on health and attack power, you won’t have that option. I’m guessing this is done to keep the game balanced for leaderboard reasons, but I wasn’t a fan of them limiting my already limited options.
Even with the balance from limiting where you can use your skill gems, I still felt extremely overpowered about halfway through the game. This was mostly because of the crafting system. Throughout the game you’ll be able to find blueprints that will allow you to create items such augments for your sword, armor and other trinkets, each of which increases one of your attributes. You can craft these by collecting materials from fallen enemies. Crafting is a little too easy in Dust though. Once you find a certain material and sell it to a shop, all shops will stock that item. So as long as you have the cash (which you more than likely will) you can buy whatever items you need for any blueprint you have. This makes crafting more accessible, but sort of makes picking up these materials from enemies almost pointless later in the game.
On the topic of enemies, there is actually a pretty good variety of them to be found. Each has their own attacks and patterns and this makes combat a little more fun. Well, until you get so overpowered that you are taking most enemies down in a couple of shots. Boss fights on the other hand are kind of a joke from the start. Spam Fidget’s attack and Dust Storm throughout the fight, while throwing in a few standard attacks to let those recharge, and you’ll make short work of nearly every boss. This was another disappointment for me because utilizing bosses with difficult, yet distinct patterns would have been perfect in Dust. I will say that they do try to change things up with the final boss, but rather than giving you an epic fight, they resort to cheap tactics to create pseudo-difficulty, which is more frustrating than anything.
I feel like everything I have to say about Dust is negative, so let’s move on to some positive aspects of the game. The biggest standout for Dust is the beautiful art used in it. With everything being hand drawn I was honestly surprised with the amount of unique backdrops and set pieces displayed throughout the game. The combat animations are also fantastic, if you can take the time to watch them amidst the chaotic fighting.
Dust is also at its best when you’re exploring. You’ll get to explore a majority of the areas in the game simply by completing the main quest and the sidequests. However, thanks to new abilities you unlock throughout the game (ala Castlevania or Metroid) you’ll have to do some backtracking and further exploration if you want to find every piece of treasure Dust has to offer. From time to time there are also puzzles to solve in order to acquire some treasure, but sadly these are so easy that they barely qualify as puzzles. Going back through old areas with new powers and seeing how they could be utilized was definitely some of the most fun I had with Dust though.
While it may seem like I was pretty critical of this game (which I kind of was), there is still fun to be had with it. Almost everything about Dust is great in small doses, but when experienced over the course of 10 to 15 hours they can grow pretty tiresome. The lack of depth in both combat and RPG elements really hold this game back from being something special. I want to stress that it is in no way a bad game, but as is, Dust: An Elysian Tail ends up just being another unmemorable XBLA experience.