Dust: an Elysian Tail is an indie title that was released this month on the XBLA for the “Summer Arcade”. It is a 2D side-scroller action RPG much in the same vein as Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.
This game was mostly created through the efforts of one man, Dean Dodrill. Considering the limitations one could have under such circumstances, it is amazing how wonderful an experience the game truly is.
The artistic design of the game is absolutely gorgeous. At times you feel as though you’re watching a moving painting on your TV. Characters and environments are all given an obvious touch of care in their design. The world you play in has a beautiful life to it whether you’re traveling through a forest, a haunted meadow or a snow-covered mountain.
I won’t say all of the animation is perfect, there are moments when certain creatures move in a way reminiscent of amateur flash cartoons, but it’s easy to overlook with the rest of the experience. Even watching the main character fighting on screen is visually engaging.
Musically, the game matches its atmosphere perfectly from mysterious to creepy, from hopeful to sad, every aspect of the game’s presentation works really well together.
Story-wise, the game follows a fairly familiar tale of a highly skilled stranger who has no memories and is trying to figure out who he is while also having been given the destiny of saving the world along the way. Its presentation of the story is intriguing and I’d be lying if I said there were not parts of the story that inspired emotional responses. Particularly a piece of dialog from a child after bringing him snow from the mountain top had me choked up pretty good.
Going a bit deeper into it, the story revolves around a character named Dust, who wakes up in the middle of a forest with a talking sword who claims it was summoned to him and Fidget, a creature called a Nimbat who looks like a cat with bat wings. Having no memory of who he was or what purpose he could have had that would have summoned the sword, he sets out on an adventure to find out.
Dust is a likable protagonist. He physically looks like your usual anime wandering samurai (aside from being an anthropomorphic rodent… canine.. thing) but his personality is generally kind and almost innocent. There is an explanation as to why his personality is like that despite being a walking death machine, but I don’t want to spoil too much of the plot. I think it’s worth the journey to find out.
Fidget is our comedy relief side kick character for the duration of the game. It was apparently her job to guard the sword, so she was kind of confused when it just flew off on its own. She reminded me of a less abrasive Daxter from the Jak series, and not just because she’s furry and orange.
She’s got a little bit of an attitude and isn’t generally too thrilled to be going on such a dangerous adventure with some guy she just met, but she’s loyal and actually very useful.
As far as the actual game is concerned, the combat system is fun though not especially deep. There are only a few combos and honestly one of your abilities is so overpowered there’s almost no reason to ever use anything else. The ability is called Dust Storm, and specifically the aerial version of this move makes Dust move through the air like a spinning torpedo.
Using Fidget’s ability to fire projectiles you can create huge combo attacks. I usually used the fire ability which with Dust Storm created huge moving pillars of flame. Continually doing this while flying back and forth out of the range of anything that could attack me is pretty much how I won every fight in the game, boss or otherwise.
While I can safely say I still had fun doing it, it is a bit disappointing that there are only a couple of enemies in the game that can counter that move. It makes the game less of a challenge.
The platforming controls work well. The RPG elements are well integrated, including a system where you collect materials to forge items from blueprints you find. I generally skip out on forging in most RPGs I play so it says something that I actually bothered with it in this game. A lot of the materials you gather simply from killing different enemies.
Leveling up as well as acquiring new movement abilities like slide or double jump give a tangible sense of progression. There’s a certain feel of satisfaction coming back to a room with a treasure you’d passed by because you didn’t have the right ability yet and exploring further.
There are several secrets in the game, the biggest ones are cages strewn throughout the world that contain other famous indie developed characters like Meat Boy, Fez or Spelunky. One of my favorites was getting the character from Braid, because the method for doing so was an homage to one of the worst things to come from Castlevania 2 Simon’s Quest… the red orb. It even has the tornado that whisks you away.
Overall, this is an impressive example of what can be done outside of a Triple A studio. The game isn’t perfect but it is fun, addictive and a visual masterpiece. Given time to expand on the combat a bit more and balance the difficulty would fix the biggest issues I had with the game. It certainly isn’t an original idea but it is one we have not really seen done this well in awhile. It’s more than worth the money.