Developer: Humble Hearts
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Platform: Xbox 360
Dust represents the best facets of the independent gaming community. It combines an engaging storyline with astounding aesthetics and enjoyable gameplay. Moreover, it does all of this despite being principally imagined, designed, and programmed by a single, dedicated artist.
An Elysian Tail is the story of Dust, a confused amnesiac who must progress through the world in order to figure out his shattered past. With him are his companions: Ahrah, an ancient sword, and Figdet, a flying fuzzball most resembling Navi, but with more dialogue and attitude. The game is set in a universe entirely populated by anthropomorphized animals, making what would otherwise be an incredibly violent game more palatable to parents and younger generations, while at the same time keeping the focus off of gratuitous gore. Instead, the player’s attention is often drawn to the polished landscape and creatively designed enemies, creating at once a relaxing and exciting environment.
It is difficult to describe how incredibly good the artwork in Dust is. Each landscape features so many polished and well-designed elements that a player can go through any level dozens of times and keep noticing something new. The backgrounds are also animated, incorporating the player into the scene and distinguishing Dust from other generic 2-D platformers.
While one could assume that gameplay is not the main focus in a game principally advertised for its artistic merit, Dust does a surprisingly good job of creating a combat system that is both simple and elegant. The game allows for only a few combinations of attacks, but varies greatly in how one can use them. For example, the “Dust Storm” technique can ward off enemies, pull around bombs, be used as a platforming tool, and amplify magic to create devastating levels of damage. At the same time, the aesthetics of the combat are just as good as the incredible levels in which the player is fighting. Furthermore, the enemies continue to feed into whatever atmosphere they happen to be in, with each area featuring a specialized set of monsters with different abilities to keep the player challenged.
As Dust is both a platformer and an action game, attention should also be given to the excellent way in which the platforming element is included. Rather than having the player move through a level in a purely horizontal fashion, Dust takes advantage of vertical movement and doesn’t give the player a fully zoomed-out field of vision. This means that areas can feed into each other in an intricate pattern that promotes exploring and creative solutions to obstacles. Also, each area has completely different dimensions from the next, making transitions much more novel.
The trading system in the game is also streamlined and involved, with a smithing system, a well-designed GUI, and a creepy merchant of potentially questionable motives.
It should also be noted that the music, coordinated by Hyperduck Soundworks, does a great job of adding to the atmosphere and feeling of Dust, keeping the player uplifted while also giving battles and action scenes an appropriate vivacity.
One of the endearing features of this game is the inclusion of cameo appearances of characters from other indie games (the identity of which will not be revealed here) that are locked in cages around the world. Besides being interactive and generally cute, each of these “friends” also give a permanent bonus to the player.
There are only minimal faults with this game, and these are limited to some of the voice acting and dialogue/cutscene animations. Neither of these areas contain serious problems, but it would have been nice to see all of the dialogue and cutscenes maintain the level of artistic quality that exists throughout the rest of the game. Also, it should be noted that if the player has a mind for a challenge then normal mode or lower should be avoided as the game grows exponentially easier as it progresses. This is simply due to the leveling and item modifier mechanics. However, there are both “Tough” and “Hardcore” modes that more than make up for this disparity in challenge. Furthermore, as Dust can cater to both adults and children, there is an easy mode that makes gameplay manageable for younger generations.
Dust: An Elysian Tail is not only an enjoyable and interesting game, but it is also well-crafted and more artistic than many AAA titles produced by teams of people and brand-name gaming industries. Realizing that Dean Dodrill took on nearly all of the work himself, one cannot help but appreciate the dedication and talent that went into this game. This is a fun play and, at $15, more than worth the buy.