Dust: An Elysian Tail is a side scrolling 2D hack and slash released onto Xbox live Arcade. This game is the dream child of Dean Dodril, who single handedly animated and coded the game, reaching out to a support forum for voice actors for his brain child. Amazingly enough the product that the player is presented is an incredible piece of artwork and super fun gameplay. This game is fully engaging, very fun and very approachable to pretty much all gamers.
Your main character Dust is either a bunny or a mouse (still not entirely sure), that wakes up and has no memory of who he is. He's greeted by a talking sword named Ahrah and a cat/bat hybrid named Fidget. The three of them join forces (Fidget because she's the guardian of the sword Ahrah) to try to figure out who Dust is, where he came from and why he can't remember himself.
He travels through the world of Falana, a beautiful setting with lush meadows, mountains, snowy peaks, hidden caverns, creepy forests and lava filled volcanoes. This game is beautiful, simply put. As you travel through the setting completing your quests, you get to kill and slash your way through hordes of enemies against one of the loveliest animated backdrops I've ever seen. And while playing you're treated to a very nicely rendered soundtrack, put together by HyperDuck Music Studios. The two combine to create an atmosphere like no other. It's so well combined and matched to each other, that I think some of the supposed A list games out there could take a few lessons in creating an engaging setting that while beautiful in itself doesn't distract from gameplay.
And the gameplay is well worth the price of admission. Dust does all of his attacks with two buttons; Fidget expends magic attacks with the use of another. Not only can Dust slash his sword around, but he can swirl it into a whirling dervish of death called the Dust Storm attack. When combined with jumping in the air, Dust spins around like a torpedo, annihilating enemies in his path. And if you unleash Fidget's magical blasts and then use your Dust Storm ability, her magic suddenly fills the screen with death and destruction. Because her magic and the Dust Storm use the same energy bar along with your Dash ability, some moderation and care is required in the use of these devastating attacks. It elevates Dust from a simple hack and slash to a hack and slash with some intelligence required. Strategy and thought are required in some sections so as not to get obliterated by the enemies.
Enemy combatants in the game range from huge trolls to floating wizards and little orc like creatures. Every area has a different set of enemies for you to kill your way through, each with different approaches that work best for them. I found it to be a very fun challenge trying to figure out the best ways to approach the enemies without getting my face smashed in. And if a player is finding that they're having too much difficulty, the game is set up to allow you to gracefully retreat and level up in previous areas. This allows a player to make sure that they have enough skill to move forward without feeling overwhelmed by the enemies.
The level up system consists of crystals that the player assigns to a different skill: Health, Attack, Defense and Fidget, or your magic. The lowest skill has to be within four levels of the highest, forcing the player to adopt a more balanced style of gameplay. With the different enemy weakness and environmental hazards in the game, however, this style of leveling up is perfectly suited to the game and ensures that players are able to proceed without too much frustration. A player that was allowed to level up without putting any points into Fidget, for example, would find themselves getting incredibly frustrated at a certain point in the game. This limitation on the leveling up helps to ensure the player isn't completed outclassed throughout the game.
The quests that Dust gets sent on in the game are interesting as well, with many of them requiring the player to navigate through environmental hazards as well as dealing with enemies in order to proceed. Each of them keeps you engaged well enough that you never really get bored playing the game and in fact, may find yourself pretty hooked. When I worked my way through Dust, I found myself on an approximately 18 hour marathon of straight play. I forgot to eat, bathe and work because I was so focused on making my way through every challenge. Sorry about those TPS reports, Bill. They'll be on your desk in a few days.
In addition to the regular gameplay and story, Dust features a treasure system. Scattered throughout the world are hidden keys and treasure chests that contain cool items, healing and money for Dust to utilize in his quest. Some of the chests are hidden in ways that require the player to come back to them later in the game when they've unlocked all of Dust's abilities. And some of the hidden chests are simply fun references to other games, containing a 'Friend', or main character from another indie game. Bastion, Super Meat Boy and Tim from Braid are just a few of them.
Dust features a mini map system that allows a player to know when they're in the vicinity of a hidden treasure, shop or save point. It uses easy to recognize symbols and colors to help the player along in their quest. I found this map system a very easy to utilize system to help me figure out (in the surprisingly spacious game world) where the individual treasures where. Admittedly, there are a few surprises still left, as notes scattered around the world give clues to a few special areas that can be accessed that won't show up on the map until you find them. These areas usually contain hidden Friends only, though, so a player who doesn't find them all will only miss out on an achievement involving the friends and will still be able to get to most of the chests with items to help in the game.
After playing this game fully through, searching out all the treasure and enjoying the game play I can think of very little to complain about with it. It's a full, completely entertaining package. However, there were a few places where the game stumbled. One of them was something I would never have expected to really care about, and that's the non-inclusion of an achievement that should be in the game. Now, when I play, I generally don't go for Achievements. I'm more interesting in playing the game and if I get them, great. But in Dust, I found myself compelled to get full 100% exploration of every map and full 100% treasure pickups. I actually did just that and was very proud of myself. However, I wasn't awarded with an achievement for it. The game specifically gives you an over world map where you can see how much of each area you've uncovered, but in the long run there's no reason to fully search all of the treasures out if you're getting enough cash from defeating enemies. There is no achievement for full exploration and there should be.
Also, there is no new game plus in the game. One of the achievements is for beating the game on the Tough or Hard setting, which is a fair achievement. However, after I've spent an entire game leveling my character up and making him pretty badass, I've got to start all over again when I restart on a higher difficulty. A slight tweak to the leveling system and the inclusion of a new game plus option in this game would have been a very nice addition and one that I feel the game was lacking. And as beautiful as the setting and animations are in the game, minor characters don't always receive the star treatment. Their movements and motions can be a little clunky and odd when you see them in mini cut scenes in the game. Whenever Dust spoke to anyone, I sometimes found myself being distracted by the lack of fluidity in their movements.
However, these beefs are incredibly minor and didn't take away from my enjoyment of the game for one instance. This game is a full package; fun, engaging and a well-balanced challenge. And for those out there who have criticized Fidget for her occasional fourth wall breaking quips, I say to you: "You have no sense of humor, good sirs." She is one of the funniest and cutest sidekicks I've seen in a game. She is adorable, hands down. And if after reading this review and hearing about the adorable cat/bat hybrid, you still don't want to play this game, you clearly have no soul. Go play Dust, right now.