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[PAX East] Hands-On:
Dust: An Elysian Tail

Posted on April 8, 2012 AT 10:29pm

There’s kind of an unwritten rule in gaming: Never get too excited about an upcoming game. I mean, we all do it—a project is revealed that contains elements that for whatever reason trip our triggers, and the hype starts building inside of us. Sometimes, in the end, it all works out. And then, there’s the countless times that it doesn’t, and we end up drifting in a sea of disappointment.

Dust: An Elysian Tail has been a game that I’ve tried to not over-hype myself for. I still remember when it was first revealed back in 2009; the visuals that were being shown were beautiful, and the promise of the game seemed high, but it was an Xbox Indies game being fully crafted (except for the music) by one man. In my mind, the odds simply weren’t in Dust‘s favor.

Then something interesting happened: Dust won Microsoft’s 2009 Dream.Build.Play challenge, which meant that the game would be moved from being an Indies project to a Microsoft-supported release. This took Dust off of the radar for a while, and caused many—such as myself—to store it away in the back of our heads so that we could go on to concentrate on other, more near-term things.

Something else then happened: Twin Blades. What connection does Bulkypix’ tale of a zombie-hunting nun have to do with Dean Dodrill’s Dust? Well, actually, none—but stay with me here. Twin Blades—at least perceptively—had a lot of similarities to what we were seeing in Dust. Visually detailed, cartoony artwork and sprites. Side-scrolling action title. Some comparable gameplay and design aspects. So, I came to anticipate Twin Blades for the exact same reasons that I was anticipating Dust—only to have it be a crushing disappointment when I finally played it.

So—unfairly—I think my brain sort of made a connection between the two. If there was to be one such game that turned out to be a huge letdown, then it would certainly happen with the other.

Today, these many years later, I finally got to try Dust. In the three years since Dodrill first introduced us to the game, a lot—a lot—has happened. And while I haven’t exactly forgotten about Dust or my excitement for it, there’s been plenty that’s come and gone in that time that grabbed my attention, you know? It can be easy to forget those feelings of excitement that you once felt, and that’s the place I found myself in at PAX. I wanted to see Dust—but I didn’t need to see it.

Looking back at where I was 24 hours ago, those feelings seem so distant. Now, if you were to ask me, I’d say that I don’t want to play more of Dust—I need to. Okay, so maybe that’s a little dramatic, but my excitement for this project is absolutely real.

I had a chance to interview Dodrill after my hands-on time with the game—that interview will be hitting this site very shortly—and I started our conversation by saying that he must have made a pack with the devil in order to grant him the ability to make this game all on his own (again, save the music). It was, of course, made in a very light-hearted way—but the amazing effort this one man is putting into this project cannot be stressed enough. If you were never told that Dust was the effort of one—and only one—person, there’d simply be no reason for you to ever guess that.

Dust‘s first—and most prominent—feature is its art style, and as gorgeous as the game may look in screenshots, it looks even better when brought to life on a television in front of you. I told Dodrill that his work reminded me of the offering we usually see from Japanese developer Vanillaware: Both his and their commitment to making something that honors the craft of 2D gaming is evident when you play. Characters have personality and detail; enemies are given as much design and attention as our heroes are; backgrounds are lush and developed and full of life.

Any game that pushes to be a champion of sprites and hard-drawn artwork often runs into a dangerous pitfall—all of that focus can come at the cost of good, polished gameplay. Too beautiful and detailed of characters, and frames of animation can suffer. Too stylish in design, and movements or attack can lack that necessary smoothness in everything connecting together properly. Or, even simpler, when so much effort and resources need to go to 2D visuals—an art style that is way costlier in both time and money than polygon-based 3D—there simply may not be enough left to put into properly perfecting everything else.

I know I’ve already said it, but I have to stress it again—what Dodrill is doing with Dust all on his own just feels mind-blowing. Playing it, I almost wanted to find pieces to complain about, or elements where I could point out the folly of trying to do such a project on your own. Granted, I only got to experience about 15 minutes of the game’s early offerings, but I walked away unable to think of even one thing I’d experienced that was legitimately lacking. Personal nitpicks here and there? Sure. Anything that would stop Dust from being a fantastic game in its final form? Absolutely not.

There were a lot of games at PAX East that had a similar feel to Dodrill’s Dust—I think I heard the term “Metroidvania” at least three or four times in just one day of walking the show’s exhibition floor. Even beyond what the game becomes in its later stages, what instantly sets it apart for other games similar in scope or concept is that dedication to quality in all of its aspects. Main character Dust’s controls feel a little simple at first, but it doesn’t take long before you start getting the hang of his repertoire of moves. A few times, I found myself wishing he had this or that move—and then came to find out that he did. Mix combos up. Knock an enemy into the air, jump up for a follow-up, and smack them around more. Or, while up there, grab them and slam them down to the group. Time your button press correctly, and perform a parry to open up a particularly resilient enemy to attack. I’m not sure how extensive or expanded Dust’s attack options could become over the course of the game, but he already exists as a character who’s not only easy to control, but one whose also fun to control.

The full experience of Dust: An Elysian Tail will continue to be locked away for now, as we convention goers were only given a small taste of what will become the full, final game. What I do know for sure is that if the entirety of Dust is going to provide the same insane level of quality and polish as its PAX East demo, then I would be shocked if this doesn’t end up as one of the top contenders for digitally downloadable games of the year.

Oh, and seriously Dodrill—share the phone number for the dark lord that you called in order to be able to produce something like Dust. There’s a few development studios I’d like to get him in contact with.

Eric L. Patterson, Executive Editor
Eric L. Patterson got started via self-publishing game-related fanzines in junior high, and now has one goal in life: making sure EGM has as much coverage of niche Japanese games as can realistically be crammed in. Eric’s also active in the gaming community on a personal level, being an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming and consumer rights. Stalk Eric on Twitter: @Eric_EGM. Meet the rest of the crew.

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