Review — 'Dust: An Elysian Tail'
A great game feels like more than the sum of its parts. Case in point: At first blush, "Dust: An Elysian Tail" has nothing unique about it, relying on the same gameplay tropes as many 2D side-scrolling action games that came before it. In spite of its well-worn design philosophy, "Dust" not only satisfies, but impresses.
With a thoughtful plot, a beautiful world to explore and a laugh-out-loud script, "Dust" more than justifies its modest price tag. The game debuted on Xbox Live Arcade last summer, but with a PC release less than a week away, this is the perfect time to re-examine this unlikely gem.
The story concerns Dust, an amnesiac swordsman who is charged with wielding Ahrah, a mysterious talking sword. Fidget, a shrill flying catlike creature, won't let Ahrah out of her sight, and the three set out on an adventure to stop the evil General Gaius from wiping out a peaceful race of outsiders.
The interplay between Dust, Ahrah and Fidget is at the heart of the game. In addition to exchanging a great deal of chuckle
-worthy dialogue, the three work together to conquer the game's challenges. Dust wields Ahrah to do battle with a variety of enemies, from bipedal monsters made mostly of teeth to enormous hammer-wielding trolls. Fidget can launch beams of light, fire or electricity to punish a number of baddies at once. Defeating foes yields experience, which Dust can use to increase his health, attack power, defense or synchronicity with Fidget.
While combat is at the heart of "Dust," it's not the only activity the game offers. Dust inhabits a large, explorable world, and each of its fifteen levels hides a multitude of optional goodies and quests. As you progress, you'll hunt keys for treasure chests, forge powerful new weapons and armor and acquire new skills — like a double-jump or the ability to climb walls — to help you reach new areas and revisit old ones for rewarding challenges.
Although Dust's new abilities help mix things up, the game does generally follow the same pattern from start to finish: take on a few quests from townspeople, jump and fight your way through an area, learn a new ability or two, fight a boss (big opponent) and repeat.
Thankfully, the game's striking visuals make each new area a joy rather than a chore. "Dust" makes use of an incredibly rich color palette, and you'll see your share of verdant woodlands, desolate mountains, haunted mansions and sparkling caverns. Character animation is fluid and dynamic, elevating the otherwise-generic anthropomorphic animal characters far above their quotidian designs. [See also: 5 Hit Games Made on a Shoestring]
A varied, atmospheric soundtrack complements each level. The voice acting doesn't reach quite the same heights, but the amateur voice cast turns in respectable performances and, impressively, doesn't sound much worse than many professionals in the business.
The game is not entirely free from blemish. The difficulty curve is all over the place. Dust is almost immortal for the first half of the game, but one long level in the middle throws multitudes of tough enemies his way with nary a save point in sight. Subsequent areas wind the difficulty right back down before culminating in a balanced final level.
"Dust" also contains a number of game-breaking glitches: Dust can fall through floors, get stuck on level geometry or even crash the game entirely by trying to enter a new area, necessitating a reload of the player's last save file. Completing the game takes about 10 hours, so it does not overstay its welcome, but be prepared for some repetitive sections and backtracking along the way.
For all of its minor annoyances, "Dust" is still a polished, memorable experience that you'd expect to retail for far more than $15. If you yearn for the classic gameplay systems of side-scrollers combined with slick modern graphics and sound, this one is too good to pass up.
Title: Dust: An Elysian Tail
Developer: Humble Hearts
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Platform(s): Xbox Live Arcade, Steam