Dust: An Elysian Tail ReviewA game review article by: Stephen McCall
Dust: An Elysian Tail borrows a lot of elements from game series such as Super Metroid, Shadow Complex, and the handheld Castlevania titles from the past decade. Players explore different areas in 2D perspective and find equipment and abilities, but Dust provides plenty new material to distinguish itself from the games that inspired it. These deviations make the game worth playing.
The biggest gameplay feature that separates Dust from the games that inspired it is the hack-and-slash combat. Players will use their sword and magic to fight enemies and by combining the two they can chain together lengthy combos and swarm multiple enemies at the same time. During my time with the game I made combos over 200 hits on a regular basis and ventured into the 1000 hit combo realm a few times. Yet, this felt fair because of the limitations designed in the game. For example; your magic use is limited, using the Dust Storm attack for too long can cause you to hurt yourself and interrupt your combo, and the only way to reach full health is by buying and using food or discovering health-regenerating items nearly two-thirds into the story. Any difficulty found in fighting enemies, the beginning of the game in particular, can be overcome by grinding levels. RPG-style leveling is done so that players can't invest all their bonuses into one stat. You're forced to raise yourself evenly and have a balanced, strong character if you choose to upgrade stats. Players can also craft stronger weapons and armor with materials gathered from fallen enemies as a way to avoid grinding levels and spending lots of money, but I was baffled at how this feature was unlocked by a sidequest. Why wouldn't a feature like that be available from the beginning, and why does it need to be optional?
The game is divided in a manner similar to Metroid Prime 3 and Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia where players choose a region and explore it on its own, separate from one big “connected” world (e.g. Shadow Complex or Super Metroid). Upgrades for abilities such as double-jumps and wall-climbing exist, but they're handed to the player over the course of the story instead of given as rewards for exploration. Instead, using them to backtrack to other areas leads to optional trial rooms or treasure chests, cages, and keys to open them with. Chests give money and items at the cost of one key as cages require more keys to open, give permanent health bonuses, and provide cameo appearances of characters from other XBLA games. Trials are completely optional obstacle courses and can be completed in order to provide competition from leaderboards, achievements for doing well, and items from completing the game. My biggest gripe with exploring areas in Dust is the overabundance of situations where you must guide an exploding fruit from a tree in order to demolish a wall in the same area. It was clever the at first, but after doing the technique over and over again it felt lacking in creativity and became groan-worthy for me just seeing the fruit in a new area, knowing that there'd be a wall to tear down somewhere by doing the same thing I've been doing the entire game. Players who choose to explore, do sidequests, and aim for completing the entire game should take around 20 hours to do so, and around half as much for those who want to breeze through the story.
Dust's audio, visuals, and setting are a major accomplishment. The story itself is generic RPG fare: Dust has amnesia, there's an evil empire, and he must find out who he is and save the world. It's not Shakespeare, but the character dialog can be clever and there was a plot development that was the most impressive one I've seen since learning Darth Revan's true identity in Knights of the Old Republic. The hand-drawn characters have beautiful, fluid animations, and a cartoonish look. The levels and backgrounds are filled with bright colors from a wide palette. Some players may be turned away by the game being populated with antrophomorphic animals being “kiddy,” but the game doesn't really acknowledge this and the ideas discussed in the story are surprisingly mature. It’s an all-ages experience. In a rare accomplishment for an XBLA game, Dust is fully voiced. Every line of character dialog as audio to go with it. However, there's a strange mix of cartoonish and “normal” sounding voices that leads to some clashing when trying to contribute to the game's atmosphere. It felt jarring hearing someone like Dust or his talking sword Arrah speak with a calm, mature voice only to hear someone like his sidekick Fidget or a country bumpkin NPC chime in with an over-the-top performance that ruins the moment. Dust's vocal performances could've gone in either direction entirely and done just fine, but trying to do both felt weaker for it.
This game is well worth the $15 price tag. Dust looks great, the combat is empowering yet balanced, and brings new ideas and concepts for each one borrowed. It forged its own identity, and proves itself as a worthy contributor to the 2D action-adventure genre.