Genre: Action RPG
Release Date: May 24th, 2013
Developer/Publisher: Humble Hearts/Microsoft Studios
Rating: ESRB E10+
Platform: PC (Reviewed), Xbox 360
Dust: An Elysian Tail harkens back to those childhood experiences that molded most of us. Be it the lengthy afternoons spent with Castlevania or seeing another rerun of The Neverending Story, it was always about the illusive sense of adventure. Not just saving the world and rescuing the princess, but about places that were ‘out there’ and yet to be explored. Dust, while not flawless, is sure to bring back those feelings.
The first thing anyone will notice about Dust, whether by playing it or by watching a trailer, is how great it looks. Indie games get a lot of flack for being uninspired in this regard, often falling back to the pseudo-retro graphics known from the 8 or 16 bit classics, so a game like this, whose art is completely hand-painted, will feel like a breeze of fresh air. Colourful, yet withheld when needed, the carefully drawn surroundings and characters paint an image of a vibrant world that most would crave to explore.
You’ll notice that the land of Falana is always in motion, either by environment animation of flora and fauna or weather effects, both of which breathe life into the gorgeous frames of Dust. Along with the fantastic score by HyperDuck SoundWorks, this creates a sense of wonder which fuels a need to completely explore the Metroidvania-like levels filled with branching paths and hidden nooks and crannies. Dust: An Elysian Tail offers a sense of adventure of the best kind, one that looms just around the next hill or valley; it screams of creepy haunted houses, frozen caverns, scalable mountains and dense forests brimming with life, and with each screen traversed it makes you want more.
You travel the world of Falana as Dust, an amnesic who wakes up in the middle of a forest with a talking sword in his hand and a flying squirrel-like, soon-to-be sidekick character Fidget by his side. From there, the story travels the well-known twists and turns of evil generals, scorned warriors, dying lands tied in a bow of redemption and hope, ect. It is, by all means, a classic Disney-like story that offers both sorrow and cheer in healthy doses but somehow lacks any serious grip on a seasoned player. While the story sometimes touches on more serious themes like death and identity, it does so in a very straightforward, one-dimensional manner, which doesn’t help the message delivery. It is absolutely mediocre, which I guess is its main flaw, but on the bright side, it never feels like something you must pay attention to. The ability to skip any dialogue or scene to get back to the action helps in this regard.
Dust: An Elysian Tail’s gameplay is built upon the classic action RPG mechanic that pits the amazingly proficient main hero against dozens of enemies at once; in Dust’s case, both on the ground and in the air. It’s a frantic experience that utilizes two attack buttons (one for a normal attack, second for a move called the Dust Storm), Fidget’s ability to throw projectiles, and lots of jumping and evading.
In combat, the player feels powerful and always in control, which is underlined by the game’s snappy and responsive controls; toying with enemies or trying new tactics are the end results for a skilled player. Sadly, the lack of challenge turns the combat into a nearly mindless slasher that, while it feels good, offers little in terms of real satisfaction. The game’s normal enemies are mostly cannon fodder (minus the big enemies that require waiting for a counter-attack), and the bosses are unimaginative and lack any emotional weight. It’s far too easy to breeze and slash through without any hindrance.
Perhaps most disappointingly, while you gain some new moves useful for exploration and Fidget gets new projectiles, Dust never really evolves in battle. You gain levels and bump your stats, but you never learn any new combos aside from the starting few, which completely undermines the character development that might (or rather, should) be tied to it. I am all for games that rely on the skill of the player using a limited number of abilities but Dust, with its laughably easy enemies could be hardly counted as one, so having the game come up with new tricks to entertain the player would be preferable. Unfortunately, the game is stuck in complete limbo in this regard, offering an entertaining system that will, sadly, be completely forgotten once the game is shut off.
As it stands, the weight was put on the wrong aspect of the gameplay, offering more slashing than exploring. This ended with both areas of gameplay being seriously hindered. The maps, while fun to go through with all their hidden areas to find and environment dangers to avoid, sometimes feel lackluster and not developed enough, and the combat gets rather mindless after a while.
While it does get halfway in both, it is still a very enjoyable experience that will suck you into its world for a good 12 or so hours. The introduction of puzzles, more complex and inter-connected maps with more secret nooks and crannies, some more fleshing out of the combat system, and prioritizing quality over quantity would be a godsend for Dust. It seems like a long list of flaws, but again, Dust: An Elysian Tale establishes a great foundation for a possible sequel and is not to be missed if you are an action RPG fan. Once you take a step in the world of Falana, it’s hard not to fall in love with it.