The 2012 edition of Microsoft’s Xbox Live Summer of Arcade is officially over with this week’s release of Dust: An Elysian Tail, a game that was headed to the Xbox Live Indie Games channel all the way back in 2009. The one-man development team at Humble Hearts, Dean Dodrill, scored a win that year in Microsoft’s Dream.Build.Play Challenge, landing the game an upgrade to Xbox Live Arcade release. It was originally planned for 2011 launch, but delays eventually pushed it to the anchor role in Summer of Arcade 2012.
How lucky we are for that.
Dust: An Elysian Tail can be quickly encapsulated as “Metroidvania with RPG elements,” but that kind of terse description really fails to capture how the game delivers. Dodrill’s 2D art design is simply beautiful to behold in motion, especially when that motion incorporates the title character Dust’s signature spinning blade attack. Screenshots can only give you a sense of how lovely this game looks; you really need to see it in motion to fully appreciate the quality of the presentation.
The story opens with that classic video game chestnut hook in which the main character wakes up with no memory of who he is or what he’s done. A playable intro that also serves as a basic controls tutorial lets you, the player, know a little bit about the pre-amnesia Dust — and it turns out that he was a pretty lousy fellow — but even more truths are revealed as the story unfolds.
The writing turns out to be an unexpected standout feature. The main story thread involving Dust’s quest to learn his true identity is filled with a surprising amount of heartbreak and heavy emotional moments. Complex themes involving self-identity and the nature of fate are explored in unexpected ways and there’s a level of maturity to the overall script that starkly contrasts the cutesy art design. It’s not just the heavy themes either. Dust is sad and moving when it needs to be, but it’s also sharply funny, particularly in the way that Dust’s relationship with his traveling companion, a winged, cat-like Nimbat named Fidget.
Fidget also turns out to be more than just a fountain of one-liners. She’s able to spit out relatively weak projectile attacks with the press of a button. While this isn’t terribly useful on its own, you can use those projectiles in combination with Dust’s own spinning blade attack to create a whirlwind of damaging special effects on the screen. There are meters to prevent the overuse of this ability of course, but they refill quickly enough that you can realistically expect to see swirling colors painted across the screen at least once in every combat encounter.
The challenge is pretty forgiving at the start of the game, but there’s a sharp difficulty spike roughly halfway into the game. You can offset this by running off on the range of sidequests — many of which fall into the tedious realm of “fetch it,” though the sharp writing helps here as well — for added XP and better gear. You can also revisit any location you’ve been to previously, using the tools you’ve unlocked since then to find new paths to fortune and glory. That’s where the Metroidvania elements come into play.
Like the recently released Darksiders 2, Dust adds new tools to your box sparingly and at key story moments, instead relying on its RPG framework to keep you reaching for new dangling carrots. You can equip improved armor, rings, pendants, and weapon augments to boost your stats in one way or another. There’s also an elaborate crafting system built around finding blueprints and collecting ingredients from downed enemies, which explode in a satisfying shower of gold, ingredients, and other pick-ups when defeated.
There’s really very little to complain about. The controls can be a bit too twitchy at times, which becomes especially problematic during some of the tougher platforming sections. You’ll also run into more than a few cheap deaths as Dust’s excessively long knockback recovery time too frequently leaves him open to follow-up attacks. It’s a fine line to walk between challenging and cheap, and while Dust toes it pretty well, it too often steps over into the latter space.
These are minor complaints when all is said and done. Dust: An Elysian Tail is an exceptional game. The fact that it’s the work of a one-man team makes it even more impressive, but even if you put aside that technical feat, this is still an experience that is well worth the time investment. Expect to spend 5-10 hours exploring and savoring the game’s beautiful world. Summer of Arcade 2012 is officially over now, and Dust: An Elysian Tail gives it the best send-off imaginable.
Score: 9 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by Microsoft Studios)