Dust: An Elysian Tail Review
Developer: Humble Hearts
Genre: Action RPG
Platform: Xbox Live Arcade
The indie development scene that has been so prominent this generation has given life to some of the most innovative and interesting titles in an industry dominated by derivative games and annual franchises. Every game that sees release is a labor of love from those working on it, of course, but few impress to the level that Dust: An Elysian Tail has. Here is a title that was created from the ground up almost entirely by one man, but you’d never know that just from playing it.
Dust tells a story of a land called Elysia and the animal-like humanoids that dwell in it. As the narrator lays the groundwork for the plot to follow, the player has the opportunity to play along with the story, as your shadowy avatar lays waste to the denizens of a village. After the opening concludes, you wake up in the presence of a talking sword and its furry guardian as the game’s title character. He knows only that his name is Dust, as he suffers from a bout of amnesia, but you begin to learn more of the character’s history as well as that of the sword during the progression of the game.
While it’s not what I would call a plot heavy game, what is featured here was surprisingly well done. Things start out a bit slow, as Dust finds himself helping people in need and fending off foes without really knowing why other than it is the right thing to do. But after some sizable progress, you discover who he really is, and things take a very clever turn. Further driving the tale home is the anime-like cutscenes sprinkled in the midst of the game that are used very effectively during pivotal scenes.
Aside from the animated sequences, the in-graphics are even more impressive. If I didn’t know what the game was prior to looking at a screenshot, I’d have told you it was a Vanillaware title. The 2D visuals are that well polished, and look even more stylish when action begins happening on the screen. The fact that something like this could be on par with a game like Muramasa or Odin Sphere and it was designed by one guy just blows me away completely. The attention to detail is incredible, and even the mouths move on the portraits when dialogue is being exchanged.
Speaking of dialogue, the voice talent in Dust: An Elysian Tale was quite good. Dust’s lines were delivered in the same kind of dramatic and gruff tone as David Hayter’s rendition of Solid Snake, though a bit more anime sounding. His rodent partner, Fidget, was also an entertaining treat for the ears, as his (or her?) character served as the game’s comic relief and much of the humor is owed to the delivery of the lines. Every NPC character in the game appeared to have a unique actor as well, so every person you meet over the course of the game sounds like an individual, and have the personalities to match. Even the soundtrack is able to meet the high bar set by the game and provide a suitable backdrop for the drama taking place on screen.
The visuals aren’t the only thing that Dust shares with Muramasa. The game plays very similarly to Vanillaware’s Wii title, though I found myself preferring this game more, despite being a bit heavier with the platforming elements. And this is coming from someone who enjoyed Muramasa immensely.
As you begin Dust, you are taken through a series of tutorials to familiarize yourself with the various techniques at your disposal. While frequent and a little distracting, all of the heavy stuff gets taken care of right from the get go and you are free to be left to your own devices for the remainder of the game.
Dust has a standard attack that can be executed with the X button, though combining it with Y will give you access to more combos. Hitting Y on its own will cause Dust to spin his sword around, which will not only damage foes, but bring items closer to you. Fidget has various spells that can be mapped to B and using them in tandem with the Y button will cause the magical abilities to disperse into a wider effect, such as a lightning storm that damages all foes around you.
Fidget’s abilities, as well as Dust’s ability to evade attacks, drain a meter that can be recharged by melee attacking foes. It all sounds simple at first, but it won’t be long before the screen fills up with enemies and you’ll have to utilize all of these skills to make any sort of meaningful progress in the game.
While there isn’t a block button in the game per se, you can parry enemy attacks by swinging your sword at the very moment you would normally get nailed by one of their strikes. Doing so will push you both back, though most enemies will be stunned by the parry and take more damage as a result. As you progress further in the game, your foes will also be able to utilize this parrying ability, and so landing strikes becomes much more difficult. While that can be a nuisance at times, it does keep the experience fresh, as juggling around the easier foes with the same combos time after time can get a bit monotonous.
On the menu screen, you can equip different pieces of armor that will enhance stats such as your attack strength and defense as well as healing items that can be used in a pinch. Sometimes you’ll run across blueprints for even better items, and bringing these along with specific materials to a blacksmith will let you create equipment for much cheaper than it would be for you to buy it from a merchant outright. The menu will also let you disperse stat points earned from level-ups as well as manage any quests you have completed, or have yet to complete. The overworld map illustrates the different areas that are open for you to visit as well as the percentage of the map you have explored and treasure chests you have yet to open.
Between exploring and finding everything, as well as finishing every quest and conquering the more challenging difficulty levels, completionists should find plenty to do outside of the main game. The story can be cleared in around ten hours or so if you pass on everything else. But there are also challenges that you can discover (again, similar to Muramasa) if your character is powerful enough, and if you do well, you can see how to rank against other players on the leaderboard.
The game is plenty challenging on its own, even at the standard difficulty, as I worried about potential complaints from my neighbors about my loud outbursts after playing some of the late game battles. Checkpoints are dispersed frequently throughout each area and will regenerate your health up to halfway. It would have been nice to have them fill you up completely, as even level-ups don’t recharge your health unless that’s what it is your upgrading. Even then, it only goes up by however much you gain from the health upgrade. I don’t think I ever had my character at max health given that and the high cost of the better healing items.
Dust: An Elysian Tail may only be a $15 Xbox Live Arcade title, but it plays like a full retail game and it has plenty of content in it to boot. It controls well, has a very polished presentation, and there’s a lot you can do. There is a slight repetition in some areas, especially as it pertains to sidequests, but it’s no more than what you would find in similar games. The game is a steal at that price, and if you liked Odin Sphere or Muramasa in any capacity, then check this game out.