Dust: An Elysian Tail (XBLA) Review

I’ll admit it, at first glance Dust: An Elysian Tail did not catch my attention.  An XBLA 2D platformer with childish looking cartoon characters, it really wasn’t something that was on my radar.  I questioned why a game such as this was chosen to be the final title in this year’s Summer of Arcade.  After researching the game a bit further I discovered that the developer Humble Hearts consisted of just one man.  All of a sudden I found myself intrigued.  Winner of the XNA Dream Build Play competition in 2009, I was curious to find out if Dust: An Elysian Tail was truly deserving of its accolades.

In regards to the game’s story, when we first meet our protagonist we find him in the midst of a beautiful, colourful forest, unaware of who or where he is.  His name is in the title of the game, and if you didn’t know it already he goes by the name “Dust”.   Dust is greeted by a talking sword named Ahrah and a cute furry fox/cat fairy-like character (later to be revealed to be a nimbat) named Fidget.  It is discovered that somehow Dust has summoned the sword.  All three embark on quest in the land of Falana to determine who Dust really is.  Wandering through graveyards, caverns, mountains and villages, the trio come across many NPCs on their journey who request their help.  They also encounter some not so intimidating boss battles along the way.  The storyline, while not particularly compelling, did have a few interesting plot twists that manages to keep you interested in continuing on; however, the story really isn’t the draw here.

Within the first few minutes of the game I was immediately struck at how much detail was put into this game.  The gorgeous backgrounds, so finely detailed, looked very much like a children’s story book.  I could not quite place why the furry characters seemed so familiar to me, that was until I did some further research.  I discovered that the animator, Dean Dotrill, drew his inspiration from a character in Chip and Dale’s Recue Rangers.  Throughout my experience I was continuously in awe of everything on screen.  The bold bright colours, the weather effects in the background, a wide range of anthromorphic NPC’s, and the animation and detail, all of these aspects truly looked as though a large development team created it.  If you appreciate art style and hard work, then you should appreciate this, but it is even more amazing to think that one man has this much creativity to bring ideas like this to life.

While I was playing I could not help but to reminisce about the 2D non-linear side scrollers I have loved in the past.  As I ventured through Dust: An Elysian Tail’s levels I discovered that it is a surprisingly big game, with many areas to explore.  Areas on the map are revealed as the story progress.  True to the genre, there is much backtracking once new abilities are unlocked later on.  You could easily run through this game in 6-8 hours focusing on the main quest, or you can spend upwards of 20 hours revealing secret locations, unlocking treasure chests, completing numerous side quests, or finding the 12 cages holding characters from other XBLA titles.

Combat in this game was quite fun.  Starting out with basic hack and slash moves, Dust upgrades his combat skills as the game progresses.  A move that I frequently used was the Dust Storm, in which Dust rapidly spins his sword, killing all within range.  This move, when combined with your sidekick Fidget’s projectile missiles, creates a massive and chaotic full screen attack, racking up the hit counter.  With this, I was able to achieve many uninterrupted combos, which rewarded me with higher experience point bonuses.

Dust: An Elysian Tail is an action RPG.  You level your character by gaining experience through combat and quest completion.  With each level you gain a skill gem to spend on such things as defense, attack, health and Fidget’s missiles.  Equipment and weapons can be upgraded via loot drops from enemies or upgrades can be purchased at one of the many stores found throughout the game’s map.  Crafting items is also an option, with various blueprints and materials dropping from slain foes; however, this can only be done at one location in the game, the blacksmith’s.  I found that this was somewhat of a pain as there were times that I had to backtrack to find her.  That being said, the end result was well worth the journey.

With an epic soundtrack for battle and a light hearted theme within the villages, the music was quite fitting for the different areas of the game, and all was contributed by Hyper Duck Music.  As for the voice acting, I have to admit that I was not particularly a fan of the voices, especially Fidget’s.  I thought her voice was annoying, almost like nails on a blackboard irritating.  I also felt that Arhah could have perhaps had a more regal sounding voice given he is a mythical sword.  The NPC’s scattered throughout the game had odd accents, and Dust himself sounded much like a bored teenager.  At times, I found myself skipping over dialogue sequences because of my distaste for the voiceovers.

At the end of the day, voice work not withstanding, I found that I fully enjoyed Dust: An Elysian Tail.  With entertaining combat mechanics and gorgeous graphics I was pleasantly surprised that it was not the childish, cartoonish game I was expecting.  At only 1200 points you should experience the beautiful hand painted work of art that Dean Dodrill so delicately crafted.  I have to say that this title is a wonderful final offering in this year’s Summer of Arcade and you would be crazy to not to consider it.

The Good


The Bad