Publishers: Microsoft Studios
Developers: Humble Hearts
Release Date: August 15, 2012
System: Xbox Live Arcade (Xbox 360)
How often can one say they walk away from a game with a different perspective on life? How often does one come across a game that takes them on not just a journey in a physical sense, but in an emotional one as well? In an age where it is hard to argue that games haven’t started to lose their soul, Dust: An Elysian Tale is one that stands among a very proud few that does not count itself among these ranks. This game is a labor of designer Dean Doodrill’s love, and it shines through in nearly every aspect of a game that should be experienced by everyone.
One of the things that makes Dust so damn great is the amount of charm and character that gushes from every crevice in the game. The gorgeous cel-shaded environments are nothing if not memorable and I found myself wishing I could live in the world in which this game took place. The characters – whose voice work is at best great and at worst serviceable – are all great and the writing was pitch perfect. The game has no problems expressing self awareness and when sidekick Fidget (a flying creature that is ironically afraid of heights) says things like “We’re going on a laundry quest?” in response to a fetch quest, I found myself genuinely laughing out loud – showing that games can be humorous and poke fun at convention without it feeling forced (here’s to looking at you Duke Nukem and Matt Hazard).
The story, while nothing new, was great. A tale of redemption, you awake as Dust, who soon receives the Blade of Ahrah with which he begins his quest to find out who he is (or was). There was a level of mystery that had me excited to see where Dust’s quest would take him next, and going somewhere new meant more to me than finding new monsters to kill or loot to collect. Every location had an important piece of story tied to it, and this made visiting each new place all the more exciting.
For the most part, the game’s aesthetic charms are matched by the gameplay itself. Taking place on a two-dimensional plane, Dust melds action-RPG elements with platforming elements in an addicting Metroidvania fashion. As more powers are unlocked, more and more parts of the map become accessible, making backtracking to past areas something to get excited about. Powers, however, are not unlocked through leveling, but as the story progresses. The leveling is probably the least memorable thing about the game, since there are only four attributes to level. If one was to play through the game more than once, it wouldn’t be to try out different character setups.
Combat, fortunately or unfortunately depending on the person, is almost as simplistic as character progression. You have your regular attack that can be mixed with the blade-spinning Dust Storm attack, which can then be modified with Fidget’s elemental magic. There are some combos to learn, but this is no Bayonetta. Thankfully, though, despite the lack of depth in combat, the visual results of your sword and magic slinging are always spectacular. Pillars of flame will reign down from the sky as Dust sweeps his opponents hundreds of feet into the air, juggling them with terrifying grace – not bad for just a few button presses, eh?
While the simplicity in leveling and combat can be left open to interpretation as to whether or not they are good, the total lack of enemy variety is something that was mildly annoying. Though there are many different looking enemies, these were really just skins for three basic enemy types that were repeated ad nauseum – light, heavy, and flying. The boss fights were also nothing to write home about, and really only served as a strengthening of the argument that perhaps boss fights no longer have a place in modern gaming. Another glaring flaw, though there weren’t that many combos to learn, was that there was no guide that could be referenced as a refresher after they were flashed on screen for an instant at the game’s onset.
Despite these flaws, however, the game is not only a great one, but a great value, too. For $15, players are given a game that can last as many as 20 hours depending on how you play. When I finished the game for this review, I had around a 95% completion with 15 hours clocked. There is plenty to explore and challenge rooms scattered across the land for players looking to get scored on their performance. All in all, the quality and scale of the game makes it all the more impressive that most of the work was done by one man, and is a love letter both to the RPG and Metroidvania genres. It comes highly recommended.