Dust: An Elysian Tail is a side-scrolling action-RPG for the XBOX 360; specifically it is an Xbox Live Arcade title. The game is part of Xbox Live’s Summer of Arcade series. Humble Hearts is the developer for the game, but that is simply a name for a name’s sake. Dean Dodrill handled the majority of the design for the game, which is impressive. The journey of Dust: An Elysian Tail from inception to its August 15, 2012 release date was not easy. Much like many of the more high profile Xbox Live Arcade titles that have come out, Dust: An Elysian Tail has a long history of missed released dates, pushbacks (the majority of this is due to small teams creating these games) and mounting anticipation based upon spellbinding trailers and huge promise. Does Dust live up to the lofty expectations gamers have attributed to it?
Dust begins in a flashback of an unknown figure in silhouette, this person fights against a mob. No matter how hard this figure tries, he is destined to lose the fight. Not to the mob, but he loses to a single child. After this futile struggle, the player meets Dust, the protagonist in a funny hat. When Dust wakes up, he has no memory of who he is or where he is. Immediately after discovering this disturbing fact, a flying and talking blade named Ahrah approaches him. Ahrah tells Dust that it was he that awoke the blade from his slumber. After Ahrah’s appearance another character, Fidget, a nimbat and the blade’s guardian, shows up and yells at Dust for waking the blade. It here where Dust’s journey begins, Ahrah urges Dust to venture forth to a nearby village hoping that it will refresh his memory. On the way to the village, Dust finds countless monsters barring his path and he must dispatch them to continue onward. The reason for the attacks is at the root of his journey and solving it as well.
While the amnesiatic protagonist who must regain his memory is a well-worn trope within video games, it works here and fits given Dust’s wandering samurai look. Here it is less a tired story device and simply a way to pay homage to the aesthetic that Dust’s visage is borrowing from culturally. In addition, once Dust’s memory slowly returns to him throughout the game and the truth of who he was becomes known, it makes for a more emotionally satisfying conclusion. The story becomes more involved as Dust interacts with more of the townspeople and learns the motives behind the attacks on innocent villages. It is in these conversations and dealings with NPCs that some of the more emotionally resonant moments happen in the game, especially in the conclusion of chapter two. A good deal of credit has to be given to the developer for inverting the conventional expectation that gamers have come to expect in the situation that kicks off the chapter. The story throws a good deal of curves into the story that keep it from seeming rote and really develop the character of Dust, Fidget and Ahrah. Some of the most enjoyable parts in the game are listening to the interactions between the fabled triumvirate.
Since the game is an action-RPG, obviously the combat makes up a huge chunk of the game. Unlike other games in the genre, Dust: An Elysian Tail focuses on two areas of combat. The first is basic sword attacks using X and Y, by mixing up and differentiating these attacks (there is a move set the player learns at the beginning of the game), the player can create combos. The second is Fidget attacks, which is magic, where Dust’s sidekick shoots projectiles at enemies. These are the two main areas of attacks, but augmenting them are some special moves that Dust can perform, but only for a little while. The first is DUST STORM, a move where Dust twirls his blade around sucking in enemies then constantly hitting enemies with sword slices for the duration the move is in use. The second part is to suck in Fidget’s projectiles and send them flying out at enemies in a vortex causing a powerful attack. Using these attacks waste part of Dust’s energy meter and if he holds the move too long he hurts himself and breaks whatever hit chain he is working on. By using clever variations of these moves, players can create huge hit chains as long as enemies do not hit them. The RPG side of the game allows players to upgrade Dust’s abilities. They can upgrade four different areas: Health, Attack, Defense and Fidget (this determines the strength of DUST STORM and Fidget’s projectiles, basically magic).
Each of Dust: An Elysian Tail’s areas is accessed via world map and each area contains a number of different sections connected together much like the 2D Metroids. It makes backtracking a necessary evil of the game, but since enemies respawn each time Dust enters a section, it gives players plenty of time to level up. The combat is fast paced and extremely fluid. Even though there is not a huge variation to the standard sword attacks, the combat never feels dull or repetitive because mixing up things with DUST STORM and Fidget’s attacks keeps thing fresh. The only drawback is the lack of newer combos or attacks throughout the game; Dust learns his whole arsenal at the beginning. It would have been nice if as Dust’s memory slowly returns he gets more varied and complicated sword moves to use. In addition, sometimes the lack of secondary items is a bit unfortunate, but the game does not hurt from the lack of either areas. Dust: An Elysian Tail does also include a crafting section where players can use a smith to make upgrades for Dust, which is fun.
Graphics and Sound
One of the most striking things about Dust: An Elysian Tail is the amazing art style. The game looks gorgeous. There is a fluidity to everything that makes it seem like an interactive anime, it is a feast for the eyes. Graphically, this game seems like something done by a much larger studio but even then sometimes larger development teams cannot match the level of beauty and polish the game features. The character models look great and the backgrounds are lush and varied making the backtracking necessary in the game a treat to look at. As the game progresses and newer enemies show up, the designs are distinct and are animated well.
Another area that Dust excels in is voice acting. For what appears to be a relatively unknown cast of voice actors, the voice acting is stellar. What the game has achieved with its actors is something larger developers should strive for even if they pay bigger name actors to fill the cast because the game manages to get good performances for each of its characters and there is pathos and sympathy imbued into the characters. The voice acting also has good variation between the different types of characters in various towns, which gives the cast a good variety. One of the problems is that often the sound effects and voice-overs are louder than the music. Even when the ambient sound is turned down, often the music is so subtle or indistinct that it seems like the sound is muted. This is not the case in all areas; the final level has particularly high energy and infectious music that matches the urgency that the story sets forth. It is a shame that the music sometimes fades out or takes a backseat to the wonderful voice acting and ambient noises.
Does Dust live up to the hype and expectations piled upon it? That depends on what exactly the person was expecting, generally, any hype or expectations are never going to be met because no game can match up to the internal hopes of someone. With that said. Is Dust: An Elysian Tail a good game? Absolutely, it is even despite some minor shortcomings, this is a spectacular title. The combat is addictive and fresh with a solid story that throws some good turns into the mix and gorgeous graphics that are amazing to look at and voice acting that really brings the characters to life. For a downloadable title, it offers a good amount of game play at around 10-12 hours and a good amount of trophies to hunt down. While most of Xbox’s Summer of Arcade lineup turned out to be disappointing, Dust: An Elysian Tail is certainly worth those MS points.