Xbox Live Arcade
|Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Developer: Humble Hearts
Release Date: August 15th, 2012
Dust: An Elysian Tail starts off simple enough. Before the game begins, you can choose from one of four difficulties, which drops you into the role of Dust, the hero who awakes in a meadow with no knowledge of who he is. He sets out on a quest to recover his memory and learn just who he is. In the process of doing so, he is aided by a talking sword, and a Nimbat named Fidget. Together, they set out to unravel the mystery, but are swept up in a large battle between General Gaius and the Moonbloods, finding monsters attacking the innocent civilians of the village Aurora, and the surrounding areas. As Dust, you must put a stop to their seige, and help all that you can while trying to find out why they are attacking, all leading to a crossroads involving you and your history.
The story itself isn’t too hard to follow, and much of the time it is driven by cryptic information. Some characters seem to recognize you, such as a woman named Ginger who becomes an intricate part of learning who you are, as well as one of the guards who reports back to General Gaius on your whereabouts. Unfortunately, this leads to a reveal half way through, but thankfully doesn’t take away from the entire history of Dust, which comes much later. But, in the process of trying to resolve your memory and the plight of those around you, you’ll befriend an underground dweller named Bopo, help the spirit of a man who ratted out Moonblood sympathizers to find peace with his wife who left him, have to find a mysterious box that leads to a disturbing chain of events involving the act of assisted suicide, as well as many other side quests such as earning a one thousand hit combo and retrieving somebody’s laundry.
Many of these side quests are not crucial to the actual story line as some of the boss battles, such as the one against Fuse that plays an important role on Dust’s emotions and development, but they do help to build his character to the player. You also get the option to expand your knowledge of him and even side characters by collecting random notes and other pieces of paper throughout the game, often hidden, as well as through general discussions that branch off and allow you to pry for more information out of people. While this may not seem necessary, Dust: An Elysian Tail is actually a tie-in to an animated film being done by this game’s sole developer, a man named Dean Dodrill, so this information may very well be handy in the long run, especially if you start to get wrapped up in it.
The controls for this game are your pretty standard side-scrolling hack n’ slash ones. The character responds rather quickly to your moves, though when attacking with the x or y buttons, they can seem to be queued up a bit, causing Dust to take a moment to respond to general move commands. This can be resolved by dashing left or right to avoid being hit using the triggers or right analog stick, but in the heat of the battle you may forget about it all together, accidentally switch Fidget’s attack move, or use a health item or two instead. But, everything else responds well, such as the double jump maneuver you learn later, the buttons you press in the pattern to unlock treasure chests, and any sword spinning attacks on the ground or in the air, though the non-aerial version does cause a brief delay.
While this title was a one man project, the voice overs are hired help, and the music is contributed by an outside source. HyperDuck Music Studios does a great job with the material they provide, and many of the compositions largely suit the environments of each stage or scenario, helping to make the game believable, as well as rich in atmosphere. Granted nothing will really stick in your mind to the point of humming it randomly somewhere, but when the scene calls for a powerful piece, or even a quieter somber offering as Dust’s memory comes back and who he is finally becomes revealed, you can count on the music to set the tone well.
Meanwhile the decent cast backing the characters in this game do the best they can. Sometimes you will hear familiar voices that clearly are being altered by the speaker. The acting isn’t the greatest from time to time, but Fidget really is believable when she is in disbelief, losing her mind due to the climate, or just scared. Dust has a pretty monotone voice that does get boring after a while, but there’s enough emotion to display happiness from frustration, guilt, and so on. Here and there he does have some strong moments that help to show the inner struggles of the character based on the decision he and you make in the game. Other than that, the sound effects of the many enemies of the stage sound pretty good, and at times can trick you into thinking it might be a pet of yours making the noise. The environmental effects sound natural as well, and the combat sounds are pretty typical, but are as sleek as the visuals.
And that’s one of the most impressive elements of this game. Dust: An Elysian Tail is a beautiful, dynamic game to look at. The use of color tones throughout is something really spectacular, utilizing darker tones when fighting the undead and a general grim deep blue for storming scenes, and black hue when being chased by a demonic spirit, and a much brighter in light and color environment when in Aurora or in some of the other forest areas. Sometimes a strong color will be out of place, such as a very neon puke green or urine yellow that will appear as if it had stained the animation cells. Even though these can seem out of nowhere and questionable, this is something that can be forgiven since this is all hand-animated, and every scene, character, monster, and environment simply looks beautiful and breathtaking in a manner that classic Disney films would look if they had the rich, colorful, crisp palette that exists today.
However, there is one major problem that this game has, and it’s delay. This is an issue you will notice just about as soon as the game kicks in. There’s so much going on that it’s obvious the title can’t keep up with it. Every so often you will find text on the screen informing you shops have restocked their inventory, or you will see a notification for an item you pick up, such as a random material you can use to build better armor, weapon upgrades, rings, etc. from discovered blue prints, or other random things you find or drop from an slain enemy. These don’t always cause a delay, but sometimes it will happen. However, if you unlock an achievement or finish a sidequest, you might as well just pause the game for fifteen, twenty seconds and wait it out. The game will glitch, everything will continue to jump from moving to freezing, and chances are good you’re going to die, especially if swarmed by enemies. This caused me to die many times to try to finish the quest (and unlock the related achievement) for a one thousand hit combo that it nearly made me give up, and at the start of the game it was really infuriating to the point where you may just have to power through the first chapter in hopes it would clear up or get better, the latter of which occurs a good while before the end of the first section.
Thankfully this issue doesn’t hinder some of the other game play elements. Through the course of the game you’ll happen upon random stores by a creepy character in various parts. Here, as well as at the shop in Aurora, you can buy your health items, upgrades, equipment, and materials. However, you need to sell off one of the materials you found for him to stock them, and you can sell off old equipment too for food you will definitely need to buy the further you get into the title. There’s also many save points throughout, usually every three or four blocks on the map. In some ways it acts as a dungeon crawler, and given the power ups you’ll earn along the way, in order to collect all the hidden treasures, as well as rescue your friends, who are “iconic” characters from other titles such as Super Meat Boy himself, you are going to have to go back through the map and revisit the areas. The option of buying portal stones is a huge help, as are regeneration stones for tight spots. And, for added fun, there are some challenge levels that have you smashing lanterns to accumulate points and earn a rank of one to four stars based on score, which will get your name up on the leaderboard.
Of course, this game wouldn’t be complete without achievements. Aside the many reasons to go back and play this game, including reaching the max level, exploring every aspect of the stage, and more, there are a number of these to unlock for your four hundred points. A good amount of them are story related, and many of the secret ones do deal with with the sidequests available. If you glance over the list, you’ll also find some pretty simple ones such as just ground dashing an enemy to death. Overall they aren’t hard, but if you’re an achievement hunter, then this is one more reason to get swept up in this game’s beauty once you finish the main story line.
Hopefully there will be downloadable content in the future to keep this game alive longer than it clearly will live on, as Dust: An Elysian Tail is a phenomenal game that is only faulted by a rather large technical issue. When you look at the majority of these digital console titles, whether it’s the Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, or the Wii, this one puts almost all of them to shame. It’s really impressive to know that this fun, addicting title was done by one man aside the hired voice actors and HyperDuck’s contributions. While the story doesn’t go far beyond the twelve to fifteen hour mark, the varying difficulties you choose, as well as those from natural progression that may cause you to grind a few levels to survive at first, will keep you on your toes and content with every minute of the game. Hopefully the glitching will be patched at some point in the future to make a things flow a lot smoother, but even then it’s still well worth the money you’ll lay down for it. This is easily one of the best titles to hit the Xbox Live Arcade, and if you love beautiful, well crafted titles with a lot of passion behind them to be successful, then you need to own what is easily one of the best titles in the Xbox Live Arcade library, period.
Digital review copy of this title provided by Microsoft Game Studios.