Originating as the winner of Microsoft’s Dream.Build.Play Challenge in 2009, Dust: An Elysian Tail is a bit of an oddity. It features a fleshed-out story, wonderfully smooth gameplay, and gorgeous graphics—yet it was more or less designed and created by a single person. Due to this, Dust isn’t without its flaws. However, its good qualities outweigh its bad, and what we have is an adequate platformer title worthy of your time and money.
Dust: An Elysian Tail follows the adventure of its titular character, Dust. Following a brief, playable prologue, the game opens with our hero waking up in the middle of a deep glade. He is met instantly by a mystical sword known as the Blade of Ahrah, and its guardian, a bizarre cat/nymph hybrid called Fidget. Our hero suffers from a nasty case of amnesia, and at the blade’s suggestion—yes, the sword is sentient—the trio heads east with the goal of reviving Dust’s memories.
For a 2D platformer to feature such an immerse backstory and world, as well as be grounded with deep RPG elements, is a treat. As you journey through the land of Falana, you will notice that the world is alive. Dust features the exploratory and combat elements indigenous of the ‘Metroidvania’ classification of platformers. It also contains content dark enough to be right at home with either Metroid or Castlevania.
The first thing you might notice upon starting Dust is its graphical style. The game is beautiful—character model actions are swift and without lag, and each environment is artistically and painstakingly crafted. Considering that this game was created by just one guy, the visual display of Dust is a mighty achievement. You could accurately think of Dust’s art direction as very Rayman-esque—very fantasy in fashion. The attention to detail in the game is astounding. The special effects of when Dust slashes through enemies are just cool, and help detail the game’s combo favoring gameplay. In fact, the usage of the Dust Storm ability will cause some environmental effects, such as the branches of trees being swayed by the vortex. During dialogue scenes, detailed character portraits are shown up close, really showing off each character’s design. Even NPCs are all unique, which is a very nice touch. Every character shown in the game is some sort of anthropomorphic animal. Dust is something similar to a rabbit, while Fidget is that cat/fairy hybrid.
At first, the cartoonish fantasy graphics and dark, engrossing story contradicted themselves to me. The game’s setting—while brilliantly designed—just didn’t set in with the tale of this amnesiac hero and his quest for memory. However, with some time the ‘dark cartoon fantasy’ of Dust sunk in with me, and it started making sense. Whether this is an intended effect or not, simply put, it works.
Dust is probably best categorized as a 2D action/platformer with heavy RPG elements, and oh boy is the action ever fun. The character Dust’s method of attack is the Blade of Ahrah. You can utilize both the X and Y buttons to attack enemies and build combos. Fidget also gets an attack—a rather weak looking energy projectile, activated by tapping the B button. You can also set healing items as hotkeys, on the left bumper. Linking together moves into larger chains will net you better and better bonuses. The action is swift and very frequent, and chaining together combos is somewhat reminiscent of the combo-centric combat found throughout the Devil May Cry series. Fortunately, it never really feels stale thanks to the plethora of moves and abilities Dust can unlock throughout his adventure. Although he begins the game only able to jump, slash, move and dodge, Dust quickly gains several movement-bolstering and combat-enhancing abilities. Once such combat ability is called the Dust Storm, activated when Y is held down. During the Dust Storm, our hero spins his blade in a such a way that it creates a powerful vortex that damages enemies and halts their movement. Dust can also use it in an aerial version in which he flies across the screen. What makes Dust Storm so much fun to use is when it’s utilized in conjunction with Fidget’s lesser attack. The projectile she shoots is amplified by the blade’s hurricane, producing dozens of energy balls which rain down death upon all enemies on screen. I thought this mechanic was fairly unique, and very fun.
However, too much of a good thing isn’t, well, good. The fast and frenetic action in Dust can be rather distracting, especially in conjunction with the detailed and stylized background environments. There are a lot of pieces of information in the game’s HUD, which will further distract you from the on-screen action. It can be a lot to take in at once. Also, there were times when the camera was just a little too loose, moving up when I really needed it to be centered on the beating I was taking.
As mentioned earlier, the RPG elements in Dust really help flesh the game out. Dust earns experience from defeating monsters and interacting with NPCs, and will gain levels accordingly. You can direct how his stats will shape upon each level up. You have an inventory, where you can collect healing items, armor and accessories, and augments for the Blade of Ahrah. You can also obtain blueprints for new armors, and the materials on which their construction depends. There are towns full of NPCs with quests to give and side stories to discover. In fact, it’s rather hard to discern if Dust: An Elysian Tail really is an action/RPG, or just a platformer infused with RPG elements.
The audio in Dust: An Elysian Tail is quite nice, though nothing to write home about. The voice acting, as expected, leaves much to be desired, although the performance of the character Dust wasn’t bad. The acting for Fidget was horrendously annoying, although that might have been a ploy to bring the character’s irritating personality to life. Background music in the game is adequate. There was nothing there that really stood out to me, but at the same time it fit the game’s environments perfectly and sounded lovely.
There is a sense of humor in the game that is quite funny at times, although I’m not sure if it totally lends itself to the game’s setting. Some of the interactions between Dust and Fidget, especially towards the beginning, are entertaining to say the least. There are also times when Fidget appears particularly genre savvy, and occasionally leans on the fourth wall.
Another quality I noticed is how the game gets you to backtrack through previously explored areas. As Dust continues on his way and earns more abilities, you’ll be able to revisit earlier places and access new things. This sense of exploration is another hallmark of the ‘Metroidvania’ designation, and another reason why the game works. There are also a multitude of quests available from NPCs found throughout the game.
Dust: An Elysian Tail is a game of many dissimilarities, although I suspect they may have been intended. Cutesy animal-people intertwined throughout a dark fantasy setting; an amnesiac, traveling swordsman and his cat-fairy sidekick. Regardless, the game is a very enjoyable one, because what really matters—the gameplay—is very well done. If you’re craving a fresh action-packed expedition, then check out Dust and you won’t be disappointed. Just watch out for those cat-fairies.
Christopher A. Carlson
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