Turmoil reigns heavy in the kingdom of Falana as hundreds of troops lay waste to the land. Led by an intolerant general who’s bent on the extermination of an entire tribe, all hope falls on the summoned hero of the blade and his...ferret with wings. Xbox LIVE's Summer of Arcade comes to a close, and to end the annual line of releases is Dust: An Elysian Tail, an indie developed platformer from Dean Doodril of Humble Hearts (this dude is the entire studio).
Dust has come a long way since we last saw it at PAX East. With nearly nine years in the making, Dust takes an assortment of familiar conventions from gaming’s past and blends them into a formula that delivers one of the most memorable experiences in video games this year.
Dust comes swinging right out the gate and doesn’t pull any punches; it's the most impressive display of visual fidelity for a 2D hand-drawn side-scroller released on Xbox LIVE Arcade. The presentation is crafted with layers and layers of detail that make up the depth of the stage backgrounds and foregrounds. From the lush greens and woodland creatures inhabiting the meadows, to the crisp edges of the crystalline stalactites surrounding the snowy mountain caves in the north, the graphics transmit a living, breathing world on your screen that constantly amazes. The ambient music blends effortlessly in each backdrop, and with scores that would make composers like Yuzo Koshiro and Nobuo Uematsu blush. Voice acting compliments the intended anime inspired vibe, and captures strong inflections that appropriately match the given mood for wherever the narrative takes them, making them a joy to follow when following the story. But before we get to that, let's visit the tender meat of this fine steak of a game.
Dust involves two key mechanics of combat and exploration, and implements several secondary features to compliment and support them to a polished finish. Combat is composed of a hack-and-slash scheme with mild strikes, heavy strikes, and projectiles. Littered with frenetic combinations hearkening back to chaotic action of the modern Ninja Gaiden games (including a nod to the Izuna drop), the execution of your strikes feel spot on when taking on enemy hordes. Combo attacks are essential for effectiveness against larger enemy mobs and assuring productive character growth for your RPG stats, as each hit grants extra experience points on top of what you already earn with that enemy’s defeat.
The combo system's driving force is the Dust Storm dynamic. By rapidly spinning your sword within a controlled whirl, the rotating blade slices and dices while extending your combo hit count. Dust Storm also enhances your projectiles into screen-filling attacks that juggle all of your foes into the air, giving the chance to juggle your opponents to an even higher combo count. With Combos influencing the speed and potency of your earned experience points, these bonus point chains break if you're damaged or careless with your Dust Storm. In short, it can only be used in succession for so long until you end up hurting yourself. This restriction with Dust Storm adds a depth of risk/reward and demands you change up your combat strategy as opposed to simply spamming the storm’s ability. Defense is simplified to evasive rolls or timed parry counters that keep the frantic action moving. Words can do no justice for this fighting system -- all of these elements round out Dust: An Elysian Tail into having one of the most responsive and solid combat systems within a 2D venture.
Experience points you earn are used towards strengthening your hit points, attack, defense, or Dust Storm/projectiles, giving you the flexibility of how you want to approach your strengths in combat. Layered defense boosting, on top of an expanded HP count, can give you some breathing room to enjoy reckless combat, or an expanded attack and strengthened Dust Storm help you level up faster. Additional equipment that you actively switch out and upgrade at any time increases the flexibility of stat progression, with different items resonating specifically to what your strategy is aimed at in a seamless fashion. In addition to equipping different items, there’s also a simplified means of crafting done through smithing, which allows you to create some exclusive items that cannot be found or bought through merchants, but rather from materials that can be bought or found.
The exploration factor is a liberal take on the Metroidvania concept, with open maps branching out through different points of your occupied quadrant, but the navigation is much more focused than a traditional Metroidvania map. Within your mini-map you’re always given an general idea of direction based where your objective marker is, and simply leaves the blind voyaging of the standard Metroidvania fare to the extra items or quests that you take on from NPC characters for completions sake. The side-quests are reminiscent from the Sony cult classic Tomba!, and though never really varying beyond the common fetch quest or beast hunt, it’s the characterization and context behind the quests that make it stand out from the label of being just another grind. The characterization does some wonder for the story even. Overall, the Metroidvania inspired map design scores a harmonious balance catering to both casual and hardcore players alike.
The cliché tropes of an amnesia-addled protagonist tasked with being the chosen one to save the world is anything but new, but I couldn’t help but admire the genuine conviction that the writing and dialogue involved. Any fan of manga or anime can’t deny the subtle nuances littered within Dust. Really, the only drawback is toward the character design. While the visuals for the sprites and stages are brilliant as mentioned before, the cut-scene animation and character still shots scream “bad DeviantART,” and feel out of place when they’re contrasted with the in-game graphics. However, this small gripe is insignificant in the grand scope of the experience, and does nothing to blemish the overall polish of the game.
Inspirations aside, Dust's tight formula is crafted into nothing short of a brilliant action-filled romp that will stick with you from beginning to end. In fact, this game is nothing short of perfect.
Five out of Five Hadokens