Xbox’s Winter of Arcade promotion has provided some of the highest quality downloadable titles over the past few years. From Shadow Complex to Bastion, there always seems to be one game that people go gorillas for. This year, that game is Dust: An Elysian Tail; a title hand-crafted almost entirely by a single man: Dean Dodrill. I previewed the game in early July and after picking my jaw up off the floor, I discussed the idea that the game was Dodrill’s Sistine Chapel. After spending many years working on it, Dodrill’s Dust has finally been released and it is every bit as stunning as you’d expect. When I finally got to visit the Chapel, I never wanted to leave.
The game follows our hero Dust,: a mysterious, teal-robed warrior with a somewhat storied past that he seems to have forgotten. Along for the journey is his talking sword, Ahrah and an orange flying ‘nimbat’ known as Fidget (essentially the Tails to Dust’s Sonic). Throughout the games five chapters you will venture through a variety of locations that are staples in most adventure games. Snow, caves, volcanoes, it’s all there. As you try to uncover exactly who you are and how you’ve come to be, an external struggle ravages an entire race. Yes, you get some genocide thrown in too. The core story isn’t particularly world-changing and follows the ‘Hero Beats Up The Bad Guys’ blueprint, yet it unravels in such a unique and compelling way that ends with you genuinely wanting to hug your television.
This is largely helped by the performances of the game’s cast of voice actors that bring the world to life. Dodrill’s brush strokes give the landscapes personality and his character models (although oft-criticized due to their amount of fur) beam with the charisma of a classic Disney ensemble. It is the voice cast that takes what started as a 2D silent film and converts it to a living, breathing world. Greatly aiding this of course, is the dialogue (penned by Dodrill and Alex Kain) and the way Dust and Fidget interact with one another. Most scenes see the squeaky-voiced Fidget trading playful, verbal punches with Dust over all manner of things, or breaking the fourth wall which had me grinning like a school boy who just discovered that one of the girls “like likes” him.
One can’t help but think of Metroid as they pass from screen to screen, which isn’t a bad thing. Many elements of what makes Metroid great are present in Dust. The map is a very similar beast and the idea of gradually finding new abilities to unlock previously closed off areas is a primary feature of any number of old-school 2D sidescrollers. Dust can receive side quests from the various villagers he encounters along the way, though most of these just equate to basic fetch quests. They are beneficial however, in that they ask Dust to explore every nook and cranny of the world map, thus exposing you to the wondrous settings Dodrill has created.
The strong emphasis on exploration is also highlighted by collecting treasure, found scattered in hard-to-reach places and behind destructible walls. As such, the player is constantly asked to explore the screen in its entirety to find the clandestine booty (not that kind, though maybe in Dust 2, Dean?) that awaits them. There is even a cute quick-time-event pops up when you try to unlock a chest, accompanied by a sound that has become almost as memorable to me as openchest.mp3 from the Zelda franchise.
Combat on the other hand, is heavily focused on achieving large combos. The higher your combo chain, the more experience you gain. Obviously hits amass higher chain scores, but taking a hit from an enemy sees your chain reset to zero. You are equipped only with your blade initially, but quickly learn the ‘Dust Storm’ ability, which sees you flying all over the screen like a tornado on crack cocaine. Although it all runs at a Usain-Bolt-like pace, it isn’t RSI-inducing, requiring only a few button presses, depending on the combos you wish to execute.
Fidget lends a hand during combat too, allowing you to use a number of her magic powers to compliment your Dust Storm ability and rain down chaos upon leagues of enemies. Dust Storm is quite powerful and prevents enemies from landing attacks, so it quickly becomes the chief mode of attack. Although it has a limit, if you manage the skill well enough, you can easily fly around the screen without ever being hit. This may seem like a positive initially, but by the time you’ve reached the end of the game, it feels like you’ve had your fingers hovering over the same buttons for far too long.
It also prevents the game from becoming too difficult, especially on the lower difficulty levels. Until I encountered the first boss battle, I had little trouble cutting enemies down like they were aging trees. In fact, my first death came at the hands of a spiked wall. It’s refreshing as you progress to see new areas that enemies aren’t simply larger or have their palette swapped, especially considering this is the effort of one man (who would be forgiven for reusing many of his assets). Dodrill should also be applauded for making a hand-drawn video game that flows smoothly, even as the enemy numbers on screen approach the thirty mark and with electricity and fire cutting across the screen.
An extra layer of depth is included in the levelling system, with the experience earned from combat and quest completion allowing you to level Dust in addition to making Fidget stronger. The system is fairly simple, with an experience point (skill gem) being obtained at each level and being put into one of four categories: Health, Attack, Defense, Fidget. The game also features a vast array of items, a smithing option which requires you to collect x number of enemy drops and build new weapon augments, armour, rings or pendants and a shady merchant who allows you to buy his latest goods. Seriously, when I say shady, I mean shady. This guy hangs out in a purple booth with no light. It’s weird. Taken together, these elements help elevate Dust above the mass of run of the mill 2D side-scrollers; though the changes in attack power or defense are often hard to recognize, especially in the face of the almighty Dust Storm.
Finally, credit must go to Hyperduck Studios who are the maestros behind the game’s music. I am particularly fond of the exuberant, upbeat Archer’s Pass theme and contrastingly, the dulcet, lurking tones of Cirromon Caverns. It is not only the strokes of a brush or the voices behind the characters that bring the game to life, but Hyperduck’s concoction of tones and melodies that truly set the scene. I hope that Dust is not only recognized for Dodrill’s incredible feats but also how much these guys brought to his sweat-ridden table (his work desk).
I found that I had reached the game’s conclusion and a 100% completion at just over 9 hours, though it should be noted that the completion percentage can go well above 100. I still had a couple of side quests to complete and a number of treasure screens to visit when the game drew to a close. At the end of the day, after the credits rolled, I felt like starting the game again. There’s not much more I can say than that.
- Reviewed On
- Xbox 360