Dust An Elysian Tail started as a Dream Build Play winner and now is a full-fledged Summer of Arcade title with big Microsoft backing. Has it improved or collapsed under hefty expectations by eager fans?
Dust An Elysian Tail is one of those rare games on XBLA that, even though you were excited for it, manages to blow your expectations away. Humble Hearts is a single man developer that brought some impressive skills to bear in his first title, and hopefully not his last. Other than a couple of small issues, Dust is a complete tour-de-force of graphics, gameplay, story and sound. While not perfect, Dust proves that 2D can still have all the leverage of a full blown 3D release, and with a hefty 20 hour gameplay time for 100% completion, it certainly feels like one.
The first thing people will talk about are the graphics, and for good reason. Upon firing up the very first level you’ll find yourself in a gorgeously hand drawn glade with a very memorable and well-designed main character. Dust cuts an impressive figure and visually has great appeal as any good protagonist should. The levels themselves are chock full of beautiful art, and due to the different environments you’ll find yourself in, the gorgeous visuals never get old. Dust especially is extremely well animated, with fluid motions for all his movements, but Humble Hearts didn’t just stop with their protagonist. Each NPC has been drawn with different outfits and present unique figures and some of the bosses character design is off the charts awesome.
The story in Dust isn’t any slouch either, though some of the themes are a little cliché. Dust himself comes to in the aforementioned glade with no memories and shortly after awakening receives a powerful talking sword named Ahrah who gives him his name and his purpose in this world. The guardian of the sword, a flying creature named Fidget, must tag along with Dust so she can reclaim the sword at the end of his adventure and maintain her clan’s honor. Heading off to find out who he is and to stop an uncertain doom from befalling the world, Dust begins his adventure. Even though the visuals look like a cross between anime and old school Don Bluth, and all the characters are animal creatures, the story itself embraces some deep stuff such as redemption, morality during war, the cost of the act of killing, and of course the internal conflict within Dust himself.
In a touch I truly didn’t expect, every character in the game is voiced and the voice work is actually rather impressive. Fidget’s voice can get a little grating, but I found it perfect for her character and I have no complaints with the rest of the cast, even simple NPCs. Fidget and Dust’s good natured bickering is surprisingly and genuinely funny and you’ll find yourself forming a bond as you play through the game together. Fidget herself will often break the fourth wall and talk about game mechanics or referring to a monster letting it know it should have saved. It’s nice touches like these, supported by top notch voice acting, that send the game that much more over the top.
Now let’s get down to the true star of Dust An Elysian Tail (after the art of course), the combat. Combat is fluid and natural and even though you have a short move list, everything combines and can be linked together with no stops in between. Dust is a deadly master with the sword and every time you tear through an entire group of monsters you can’t help but smile at the sheer awesomeness of it. Fidget meanwhile contributes as well with various magic throughout the game, that while on its own isn’t potent, but when combined with one of Dust’s abilities, can make for devastating screen clearing effects. All told, combat is simply extremely satisfying, fluid and well animated with no drops or lags in the action that I experienced, regardless of multiple monsters on screen at once.
In addition to the combat, the game has a light RPG aspect to it that really kicks things up a notch. As you defeat monsters they will drop xp as well as items and as you level you can choose 1 of 4 attributes to make stronger choosing how your Dust develops. Some of the items you’ll find are materials for crafting and with a blue print you can make some truly powerful weapons and armor that you can equip to Dust. The only downside here is often, by the time you get the blueprint and the materials, you can already buy the item in the shop. If you can get all of it when you first receive the blueprint though you’ll have an item that is usually much more powerful than what’s currently equipped, even if only for a bit. In the vein of something like Metroid, there is plenty to do and see here and you’ll find yourself backtracking to areas once you receive a new ability to find another treasure, narrative secret, or valuable ability.
If I were to nitpick the game the only other disappointment would come in the form of bosses. Overall the bosses are rather easy with only a few attacks that they shift through. Most of them can be beaten by standard attacks or by flying and flipping around spamming your powerful magic. It’s a shame because the bosses that are here not only look cool, but are tied to the game very well thematically. Overall it’s a small problem in an awesome game, but one that bears mentioning.
Following in the gorgeous footsteps of Muramasa Blade and Odin Sphere, not to mention it’s heavy Metroidvania influences, Dust An Elysian Tail is the type of game that leaves you with true satisfaction upon completion. The artwork is about as good as it gets, the music and voice work is amazingly good (especially for an XBLA title), the story is well told, combat is fluid and fun, and the game itself is just packed with value. For only 15 dollars you’ll find a game that takes around 12 hours for a run through with a few side quests, or upwards of 20 hours for 100% completion. As an XBLA title, that’s a staggering amount of content for your money, and when the content is this good, it really doesn’t leave a whole lot to complain about. Bosses and crafting missteps aside this is one of the finest games I’ve had the privilege to review for the XBLA service and one that, no matter your opinion towards furries, I think you’ll be sure to enjoy.
A copy of this title was provided to The Paranoid Gamer for reviewing purposes.