Dust: An Elysian Tail Review

October 5, 2012

/ by Tin Salamunic

Developer(s): Humble Hearts
Publisher(s): Microsoft Studios
Platform(s): Xbox Live Arcade
Release Date: August 15, 2012

If there’s still a single person that believes video games are not an art form, they should be slapped.  You don’t need to label something as art only if it hangs on a gallery wall or because it has historical value and significance, art is be the product of passion, unimaginable sacrifice, and commitment – sometimes it’s a painting, sometimes a sculpture, and sometimes it’s a video game.  When someone like Dean Dodrill comes along, a man that single handedly creates a video game that usually requires an entire team of people, it becomes clear that video games, as art, transcend the medium.  It took Dodrill three years to complete Dust: An Elysian Tail, and while he had support with the soundtrack and voice acting, he is solely responsible for everything else.  Dust is an amalgamation of traditional action-adventure platformers like Super Metroid and Castlevania, and while it doesn’t bring anything conceptually new to the genre, it combines bits and pieces of those classics into one of the best XBLA titles this summer.
  • Beautiful art style
  • Amazing animations
  • Fluid, responsive, and flawless controls
  • Fun dialogue and a surprisingly engrossing narrative
  • Furries everywhere
  • Imbalanced difficulty
  • Unimpressive boss fights
Your journey begins in a beautifully painted forest where Dust wakes up to a talking sword, Ahrah, and its flying squirrel-like guardian, Fidget.  Dust has no recollection of his past and Ahrah reveals that he needs to take a journey of self-discovery to find his true self.  While the initial premise is trite and unoriginal, you’re going to be surprised by how engrossing Dust’s journey becomes as you progress through the story.  The witty dialogue and colorful supporting characters are irresistibly charming, and the narrative adds layers of depth as you explore this gorgeously rendered world.  Don’t be fooled by the cutesy and furry art style of the game, its visuals are a stark contrast to the brutal, sword-wielding combat, and while there’s no blood painting the screen, Dust is as badass as Bucky O’Hare.

The gameplay is reminiscent of Atlus’ classic Odin Sphere.  It starts off as an easy to pick up hack and slash sidescroller, but quickly turns into a parade of dazzling combos and special moves.  You’re constantly learning new abilities, some that enhance combat and others that allow you to reach new areas on the map.  Dust moves with fluidity and grace and each button press responds with unprecedented precision.  But even with the visually impressive choreography, the flawlessly responsive and fast controls fall into the trap of repetitiveness.  Defeating enemies usually requires nothing more than quick reflexes, but to call this game a simple button masher would be unfair.  Despite its simple nature, experts can still strive for that x-hit combo and cool special maneuvers.    

The sense of discovery and exploration keeps the game intriguing throughout.  Each town holds new opportunities for venturing out. Figures with hovering leaves above their heads hold quests, and it won’t be long before you’ve queued up your log with new adventures.  Similar to Metroid, there’s a lot of backtracking involved, but it never feels like a chore since each new area is filled with secrets.  Your companion Fidget hints at nearby treasures and possible secondary paths, and she can even help out during combat by firing projectiles.  Fidget is very much like Link’s fairy, but she certainly doesn’t practice the same code of silence.  Her high-pitched voice would typically annoy me, but the cleverly written dialogue is surprisingly humorous and enchanting.

As the duo battles waves of monsters, you occasionally run into boss fights.  Unfortunately, most of these brutes are pushovers and they pose little threat to your deadly combos.  On the other hand, overall difficulty throughout the game feels unbalanced.  Difficulty spikes occur at random and catch you off guard, but luckily, there’s a fantastic check point system that regularly saves your progress.

Dust: And Elysian Tail has astonishing visuals.  The screenshots don’t do the game any justice and you have to experience it in motion to appreciate its esthetics.  Dodrill did a fantastic job of drawing the characters, painting the backgrounds, and more notably, animating Dust with sublime delicacy - the game looks better than most Saturday morning cartoons.  Accompanying the stellar graphics is the surprisingly strong voice acting.  When I say stellar, I mean it’s superior to what you’d expect from most AAA titles.  Who are these voice actors, Dodrill’s friends and neighbors? 

As you discover new villages and towns, you’re greeted to an array of whacky personalities. Every conversation brings Dodrill’s universe to life with hilarious dialogue and charm.  By the time you’ve completed your fifteen-hour journey, you’ll feel emotionally invested in Dodrill’s colorful world and characters. I won’t spoil any surprises, but let’s just say that you’ll cross some familiar faces and collectibles from the olden days of gaming.

I can’t express enough reverence for Dodrill’s prestigious Dust: An Elysian Tail.  The game is a testament of what a single person can accomplish with enough passion and determination.  The end result is a beautifully orchestrated synthesis of skillful programming and exquisite craftsmanship.  The game is visually stunning, fun to play, and a joy to explore.  It’s an XBLA title that deserves a special place in your collection.

Final Score “A Legendary Accomplishment” 9.0
Beautifully painted backgrounds that are accompanied by superb animations and fight choreography. The game looks better than most TV cartoons these days, although the Furries might be a bit too much for some.
You simply cannot make gameplay more fluid than this. It's fast, responsive, and fun, albeit somewhat repetitive. The controls are old fashioned, but they fit the style of the game perfectly.
Surprisingly engrossing narrative with likable characters, a ton of quests, and a vast world to explore. It'll take you a good fifteen hours to complete, which is more than what most full priced AAA titles offer these days.
If a single developer was able to find such talented voice actors, then no other major studio should have an excuse for poor voice acting. The characters you meet are lovable, memorable, and your companion Fidget is surprisingly charming - despite her high pitched voice.

Review by Tin Salamunic

Tin Salamunic is the founder of The Game Scouts. He is a Video Game Journalist during the day and illustrator by night. He's been obsessed with video games since the early NES days, collecting every major system and game on the market. Video games are the reason he pursued the illustration career and he hopes to be creative director for a video game company one day. All Artciles by Tin. 

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