Building greatness from dust
There are two things I’m not going to mention in this review of Dust: An Elysian Tail beyond its opening paragraph: the game’s particular style of character design and the term “Metroidvania.” For the former, I’m tired of that conversation being a focal point every time discussion of Dust arises; for the latter, plenty of games have built upon or advanced the side-scrolling action-adventure genre, many of them coming before Konami’s Symphony of the Night.
In fact, Dust is less a nod to those two now-legendary titles and more a tribute to the days of old-school 2D adventures overall. Maybe “tribute” isn’t the right word—this is a love letter to that era of gaming. The man responsible for penning that letter is Dean Dodrill, the main face behind development studio Humble Hearts. While Dodrill worked with a co-author on the game’s writing and had outside help for audio elements like voice acting and Dust’s fantastic soundtrack, the rest of what is presented here came from his hands.
Programming. Game planning. Level design. Gameplay engine. Character art. Sprite art. Backgrounds. Whatever was needed to turn Dust: An Elysian Tail from a concept to a finished game was done—and done by one person. Games have been created in the past by similarly small teams, but the absolute care and devotion that Dodrill put into Dust is both utterly impressive and clearly personal.
Dust starts off like many games we’ve seen before: A stranger wakes up, his head clear of all memories, and his knowledge of himself missing save the name “Dust.” Suddenly, he finds himself with two peculiar companions: Ahrah, a mystical, talking sword, and Fidget, a lively pint-sized flying creature who claims to be the sword’s guardian. The sword tells Dust that he must head out into the world to both find himself and his purpose; it wouldn’t be much of a game if we didn’t help Dust heed that call to adventure.
Before anything else, you’ll be drawn in by the beauty of Dust—and it’s no hyperbole to call this game beautiful. The heyday of 2D gaming now seems long gone, with budgets and demands from high-definition consoles typically making such projects unfeasible. Games like Dust buck that trend, and the amount of visual detail in every one of its stages never ceases to impress. In forests, tree branches sway with the wind; on snowy mountains, Dust’s feet disturb the snow as he walks. Character sprites are equally striking—there’s a wide selection of designs with little reuse outside of enemies, and every one of those characters animate beautifully.
With Dodrill’s background in animation, it’s not surprising that Dust looks and moves well. Making a game look pretty is one thing—making it a competent game is another. This is where I’m most impressed with Dodrill’s efforts, because calling Dust “competent” would be an understatement.
Gameplay starts off simple, yet not boring. Enemies are basic, as is Dust’s repertoire of attacks. Your journey through the game’s world will initially be pretty straightforward, but you’ll start noticing additional paths here or there that you won’t have the ability to traverse just yet.
Of course, like any good adventure, this simplicity doesn’t last for long. New abilities are uncovered, letting Dust reach previously unreachable places. New enemies are unleashed—monsters more capable of presenting a serious threat. New moves are unlocked, giving players bigger and badder ways of dispatching those enemies.
Dust: An Elysian Tail is a rich mix of action, adventure, and exploration, but I have to admit to a particular fondness for that last point: its combat. From the very first additional attack Dust is given, taking on the enemy hordes is a heck of a lot of fun. Once you’ve mastered all of his attacks, there’s a certain sadistic glee that comes from chaining them together in that perfect way to bring merciless death to a cowering group of baddies. Games that build a decent amount of their experience on action live or die by that action—and it can be hard to craft combat that stays exciting for the entirety of their length.
Is Dust a perfect game? Well, no game really is—and Dust does have its flaws. Due to a combination of save-point locations and sometimes strangely fluctuating difficulty, the game can be frustrating at times. (When playing Dark Souls, there were times when I’d die, start thinking about the progress I’d just lost from that death, and want to cry—I had a few very similar moments playing Dust.) Boss battles aren’t always as challenging as they could be, with some of the game’s more common foes putting up more of a fight. And no, neither the game’s story nor its voice acting will win any awards compared to many other offerings out there.
And yet, on a personal level, I appreciated the “unpolished, amateur effort” feel of the game’s characters, their acting, the light-hearted and humorous moments they constantly provided, and the story they were all a part of; by the end of the game, I had come to honestly grow fond of Dust, Fidget, and the rest of the cast. Where it counts most, Dust is fabulously executed—but in its other facets, it makes up for perfection with personality. This is a crowning example of why the hopes and dreams of gaming’s indie developers should be supported, and I’ll take a game that feels rough in some areas—yet clearly has heart—over a project so polished that that personal aspect has been completely lost.
SUMMARY: Dust: An Elysian Tail is a refreshing experience, one that reminds us of why people make games—and why we, in turn, play them. Combining quaint, charming elements with highly executed gameplay, Dust would be an impressive adventure even without the fascinating story behind its development.
- THE GOOD: An adventure brimming with enjoyment from beginning to end.
- THE BAD: Somewhat uninspired boss battles, at times uneven difficulty.
- THE UGLY: The feeling of being forsaken by the gaming gods after some of my deaths in Dust.
Dust: An Elysian Tail is an Xbox 360 exclusive available via Xbox Live Arcade.