I have been waiting to play Dust: An Elysian Tail for years now. I am happy to report that it largely lives up to the expectations I have let build up for it since it was announced and quite the amazing accomplishment especially when you consider it was largely made by one person.
Dust: An Elysian Tail’s story focuses on the titular Dust, his talking sword and little flying friend Fidget. The good old amnesia plotline is used here, but it is still kind of interesting to see Dust try and figure out who he is. I also enjoyed the humor between him and Fidget. While I liked Fidget, he does seem like the kind of character that may get on people’s nerves, so your mileage may vary there. I don’t really like to go into story details in reviews too much because for one, they aren’t really why I play games and more importantly I figure the less details people get the better, but I will say that a lot of effort was put into the narrative in Dust. It is mostly told through conversations between character’s art on screen, but it is all voice acted and there is the occasional fully-animated cutscene during important events. Whether people will enjoy the story told here may vary (I found it likable enough), but I definitely felt it had some serious effort put into it. That would be hard to deny I think.
Going in I had heard Dust described as a Metroidvania type game in structure with a deep combat system not unlike those found in today’s premiere 3D action games. While I’m not sure that turned out to be a perfect description, it does capture the gist of this game and Dust’s gameplay is still pretty great. The focus is definitely on combat. You have basic sword attacks and the ability to juggle enemies like most games of this ilk. The thing that probably sets it apart is the Dust Storm ability. By holding Y, you create a whirlwind of sorts which combined with Fidget’s projectile attacks makes for a pretty damn cool combo. When you get the aerial Dust Storm ability, things get even crazier. You’ll be zooming back and forth in the air, projectiles flying everywhere as you unleash all kinds of damage on your foes. While there is a limit to how much you can use your Dust Storm, eventually this move becomes really over powered. And since the combat doesn’t grow a whole lot beyond these initial moves, it doesn’t turn out as well as I’d have liked. Going for huge combos is still a blast and it looks fantastic, so despite not being as good as I’d hoped, it is still a lot of fun.
The Metroidvania aspect isn’t quite what I expected either. I mean you do unlock new abilities like double jump, slide and so on, which let you go to new places, but it isn’t one huge map and the game is generally linear. You never get a new ability and have to figure out where to go to progress the story next because the game kind of pushes you there and new places just pop up on your world map. You can unlock hidden stuff by going back to old locations with new abilities, but it doesn’t have the same feel as say some of the Metroids or Castlevanias with their huge maps and their “Oh… I can get to that part of the map now” moments. It reminds me a bit more of Outland’s structure. This isn’t really a knock on the game, it is just a bit different is all. But it works fine and traversal and getting new abilities is still very fun.
There is a lot more to the gameplay than just these two aspects. There is a fairly simple upgrade system that has you gaining skill points as you level up to assign to four different areas: Hit Points, Attack, Defense and Fidget. Loot and materials will be dropped as you defeat enemies or open treasure chests which can be used to augment your various traits as well as craft new items like armor or rings that will further improve your abilities. There are also plenty of NPCs to chat with during your adventure that will give you various side missions to tackle outside of the main storyline along with some challenge rooms that score you based on your combat abilities and traversal skills. The game really is loaded with content. In a world of 2-3 hour downloadable adventures, Dustshould take you 10 or more hours to finish and even longer to get 100%.
Of course, one of the best aspects of the game is the graphics. It uses a very beautiful hand drawn artstyle and has fantastic animation. It definitely ranks very high among the best looking 2D games out there. Unless you are one of those people who has all of the sudden come to hate anthropomorphic character designs (when did this happen, didn’t these people play games and watch cartoons when they were younger?), I think you will really love the graphics. The music is fantastic too and really fits well with everything going on in the game.
One other cool thing about Dust is the various references to other games he included in here. The game in general reminds me a lot of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, but you also get Mysterious Wall Chicken when breaking certain walls to further remind you of that series. In cages throughout the game you can unlock homages to a bunch of other XBLA games. And you can perform an Izuna Drop with the same exact button sequence as in Ninja Gaiden. You can tell the developer is just a big fan of games and now that he had the opportunity to make one he wanted to include these little references and it is a nice added touch to the game.
Dust: An Elysian Tail is a wonderful game that packs a lot of value into it. The combat is great fun if not quite as good as I wanted to it to be. The world is fantastic with beautiful graphics, lots to explore for and an enjoyable story. Having finished it a couple of weeks back, I don’t think it is as amazing as I thought when I was still playing it. Sometimes a little time to think back on it gives you a bit more perspective. It is still a must have XBLA game, one of the best on the platform and quite the achievement for the developer. If you have a 360, at least try the demo, but the full game comes highly recommended by me.