The last few years have brought a high number of smiles on faces reminiscing about the videogames of the past. The rise of the indie games has brought forth titles that hint, sometimes more and sometimes less, at the very roots of their genre. Metroidvania titles have been in the front lines as of late and when one man that worked on the Jazz Jackrabbit games decided it was time to offer the gaming world a piece of his mind, Dust: An Elysian Tail was crafted, arriving firstly on the Xbox Live Arcade, only to make its way to the land of the keyboard and mouse, a bit earlier this year, through Steam’s ever-welcoming gates.
Dust: An Elysian Tail, throws players in a beautifully drawn world without telling them too much at first. The opening scene shows the protagonist, Dust, who lacks any recollection of past events waking up in a forest, bearing a sword that is foreign to him. Eventually he meets the sword’s guardian who, from that point on, becomes his sidekick. Dust and Fidget then set off looking for answers regarding Dust’s identity and purpose.
The art style, while of obvious eastern inspiration, is phenomenally well designed. It mixes bright and dark, warm and cold colours very well, making sure the world looks easily identifiable. The characters that inhabit the area range from monsters of different kinds to anthropomorphous animals, the latter being the occupants of most settlements. It’s not often developers take this approach, especially after what the internet has done to the overall image of anthropomorphous animals, but here, they fit very well with the world, being part of what gives the game its identity.
Throughout his journey, Dust will meet a colorful cast of characters. The conversations you have with the NPCs are pleasant, both due to the good voice acting but also for the writing. Dust and Fidget’s story begins wrapped in mystery and follows through nicely. For the most part, it sheds light on the vital parts gradually, losing some of its control and releasing a small flood of information towards the end. Its direction is rather predictable, the story ending on a particularly cheesy, but overall fitting note.
Your hunt for answers will have you roaming through varied environments and taking numerous quests. Farmers will ask you to gather their sheep, or pick special mushrooms for them. Children will want your flying companion as a pet, blacksmiths will want materials to forge better weapons with and you will feel like you want to help the inhabitants of the world. Being a Metroidvania title, you will do so with the aid of your enchanted sword and faithful companion. As you kill enemies and gain experience, you will obtain gems which can enhance certain capabilities, however, you will need to level all of them closely together. The game won’t let you get too much ahead with one of them, the aim of growing in level being that of turning Dust into a well-rounded fighter. While some may feel restricted by this, it fits in well both with the way combat works and with Dust as a character.
Dust: An Elysian Tail might not sport the most complex combat system, but it has one of the better ones seen lately. You fight mobs by using sword strikes and the Dust Storm, a whirlwhind attack which, when combined with Fidget’s otherwise weak projectiles will result in an insane and satisfying flurry of damage. Counters are done by timing your attacks so that they meet the enemy’s. This stuns and renders them more vulnerable to your attacks. If at first mobs will seem harmless, as you advance, the game will become pretty challenging, especially on hard difficulty. In order to succeed, you will need to choose the right time to dodge, counter or attack. The feeling you get when you connect a parry or bring havoc unto monsters from above will be quite appealing to you, making you strive for higher combo multipliers. The fact that once you get Fidget’s fire attack you can fill the screens with pillars of deadly flame, could be another reason for that. Add very responsive controls to the mix and there’s really nothing to complain about here.
Items also play a big role in Dust’s evolution. You’ll either find them, craft them or buy them from merchants found around the place. They range from consumables to armor to sword enhancements and do not change Dust’s appearance as you find them. Materials used for crafting them will also be obtained from drops. Once you sell a newly found material to the merchant, he will add it to his stock and replenish it at given time intervals.
After reading this review, Dust: An Elysian Tail will not seem to be innovative or part of a special breed. And it’s true, there’s no real innovation to speak of. The game uses tried and tested mechanics and concepts in a very successful way. It has a sense of familiarity while still somehow, remaining fresh. The scope of the events in the game, while made to appear quite big, may ultimately feel limited, however without detracting from the overall enjoyment of the game. What’s truly notable about it is the fact that apart from the sound and part of the writing it is the work of one self-taught animator, who also programs. Dean Dodrill has managed to provide a genuine and well-paced experience. The game does not overstay its welcome, and while it may not give you that many reasons to replay it after you’ve beaten it once, it’s clearly one of the stronger indies out there, alongside obvious living proof that one man with enough passion can do much more than a studio with giant amounts of money behind them.