It is a weird feeling to try and critique a work that was mostly done by one individual, but in a setting where they are not likely to ever be aware of it. Especially after they poured three years of work into a project that was lucky enough to get funded by Microsoft, a move that Sony seems to be all about nowadays. But did a wise man not say that all games should be judged sternly and fairly, regardless of their origins or creative team? Yeah, probably, but I should probably start talking more directly about Dust: An Elysian Tale.
Dust: An Elysian Tale Review Release Date: 15/08/2012 Platforms: XBLA (Soon Steam) Developer: Humble Hearts Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Serving as an eponym, Dust is the story of an amnesiac anthropomorphic blue furred swordsman in a funky hat. Who after being awaken from a deep slumber by Fidget, some sort of orange cat fairy referred to as a Nimbat, and serving as a Navi-esc sidekick, assuming Navi could shoot lightning from her body and speak full sentences. Fumbles into a fairly comfortable set of semi-medieval heroics were cutting up monsters with a magical talking blade is most often the answer.
I use the word comfortable, because Dust’s story sounds like one that was rewritten at least over two dozen times. Which in theory should make it a sparkling gem of a narrative, but it feels a little bit off for reasons I can’t quite pinpoint, but most likely the actual dialog. Spoken by a fairly spread out cast of voice actors that are most likely obscure unless you were really big into Newgrounds like I was when I was fourteen. The dialog often goes back and forward between comic relief supplied by Fidget, a character whose every spoken word seemed to be designed to make the player want to say “Shut up Fidget!” in a spectrum of tones. And drama that if I had to guess, the creator originally thought up when he was in high school. Well, maybe middle school, due to the lack of angst present, because that is a thing that people say normally happens.
Now, the passion from the two writers does come out strongly in terms of the writing and ensemble of twenty or so characters. And when it is not sorta awkward to listen to, it is a fairly well told story that may not be wholly original or as detailed as it could, seeing as how the big bad is bad because of undisclosed reasons. However, seeing how there is or at least was a short film set in the same world planned, I’m guessing the loose ends with subjects like five blades of something or other, were placed to get sequels out if it managed to sell more than 100,000 copies on XBLA.
Which is surprising considering the gameplay. Taking the shroud of what I dub a 2D hack and slash, the combat heavy gameplay of Dust is theoretically a fast paced combo heavy entourage slashing, juggling, and hitting baddies with magic while dodging and collecting oodles of money and materials for the game’s crafting system. But the phrase “theoretically” rarely means a good thing in a review, seeing as how most of the combat can be won by pressing B to release magic, jumping into the air, and pressing Y to make the magic more powerful and seek out enemies as you juggle them to the top of the screen, or until they die.
The only major hazard for this comes in the form of a few spike coated areas where it is best to stay on the ground. Which are fairly rare, leaving the only reason to not spiral through the air being how you’ve got a quickly regenerating meter for your Y attacks. Along with few instances when you need to use the more powerful X button attack for something other than walls and bosses. Whom are a good example of how the game’s difficulty curve actually peaked at some point, and got a negative slope. Due in part to upgrades that are made extremely easy to obtain thanks to how you can buy materials after you sell one to any shopkeeper.
And even then, I finished the game with four times as much money as the most expensive item in the shops, and with about five more levels gained than I’d assume the game would expect you to have, which I got due to how the game mimics the subgenre of Metroidvania at points. With a world made up of isolated mini-regions, like in Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia, there I ended up returning to most of them at least three times trying to pick away the secrets, and seeing as how the game does not scale down experience as I kept running into an area where I needed the double jump to get. With a treasure chest or group of keys for said treasure chests taunting me until I got it at the eighty percent completion mark, which means little, seeing as how the game’s 100% is 116% percent. No clue why, but probably because someone wanted to have Super Meat Boy and the Kid from Bastion as 5% health upgrades, even if creating a Braid-esc room probably took more time than the forty seconds it took to traverse warranted.
Which are oddly the only upgrades not awarded from equipment or leveling up, which always seems to happen right in the middle of a battle, and never after one of the six or so bosses in the game. Instead, it is pretty much always money and maybe a blueprint to craft some better shirts or rings. With the only reason likely having to do with how getting combos is harder the more powerful you get, and tenthing all your stats through an ugly pendant only goes so far. And in one of its twenty or so side quests, the game has you try to get 1,000 combos, titled after Killer Instinct’s C-C-C-Combo Breaker because video games, amiright? Which makes some sense, but imitating Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest doesn’t. Especially a part that you have Fidget call nonsensical.
And while I do appreciate the thrill of exploration relatively untampered, nothing is more aggravating than having a map seemingly full, but the percentage of found treasure be at 87, because you didn’t read a note that told you to jump off of a stone statue’s hand to be picked up by a teleporting platform. But these instances are in the minority, and even though the combat is extraordinarily repetitive in theory, it is one of those things that never came up while I was actually playing the game, and I only thought about when I put the controller down, not during the 16 hours it took me to get everything.
And as if the images I grabbed five minutes before posting didn’t capture the resolution well enough, Dust is a very handsome title. Capturing a painted look with the backgrounds of lush forests, glowing caverns, snowy peaks, and the mandatory volcano, the background had a lot of effort placed into them, with the worst thing I could say being how a lot of stuff is reused. But thinking about textures and tilesets, I suppose you could say the same about most games. And while I more or less grew accustomed to the visual fidelity of this title, the fact that there are little bunnies hopping in the back, and enemies have as much animation as they do is still more than admirable considering it was made by one guy.
However, looking at some of the main character models and their profile shown during the dialog sections, I can’t help but view it as a downgrade visually. From minor things like Dust’s character design being asymmetrical, but symmetrical when animated, sometimes off lip syncing, and a very simple design for most of the minor intractable characters. That, and the few times when the game decides to have fully animated cutscenes, it looks like a very… subpar.
In fact, the cutscene animations seem to have the worst production qualities out of anything in the game, which is an instance so rare that I can’t name another example. And when paired with the same lovely backdrops as the main game, all I can notice is how simple the coloring for the characters are, the lack of any shadowing, and the rigidness of the animation, when the main game’s flows a lot better, although that could be due to how it often borders on spectacle in terms of combat, so the minute details are hard to pinpoint on that airship you can for some reason throw.
With music that remains fitting to its respective locales, and sets up a nice tone of grandiose when necessary, but also more mellow tracks for the two towns in the game. As the sound effects paired with the rumble feedback of design through the air, end up keeping the game compelling. While the voice actors deliver their all, which I say as I regret not paying enough attention to the art of acting unless it is an extreme.
Though I have issues with the story that I would have a hard time buying that it was under five years old. Can view the gameplay as one repetitive log of doing the same action ad nauseum for every battle, with interspersed hunts for carefully hidden items that hold little rewards. And can look through certain veils of the game’s beauty to find a far less appealing looking title in terms of character models, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Dust: An Elysian Tale. Even beyond that always welcomed independent vibe of a creator pouring their heart out, it is a lovely looking title that managed to stretch a fairly basic combat system into something that kept me smiling through to the end of its length that justifies its price point, even though I only paid half. And hey, it’ll be on Steam soon, and it should be half of that within six months at the rate they follow.
Great! (15/20) An impressive product, but won’t always astound due to a fair number of flaws that are difficult to ignore. Still worth your cash and a few hours of your time.
Note: While I was editing the review, I noticed there was a sale for it on the XBLA marketplace. Go pick it up ya licker! And hooray for me not making a reference to DeviantArt or Furries in the review, because it was on my mind whenever I saw a character talk.