Lasting First Impressions of Dust: An Elysian Tail
Developed by Humble Hearts | Published by Microsoft Studios
» If you’ve ever played a Jazz Jackrabbit game, then you may already be familiar with Dean Dodrill’s work. ‘Who is Dean Dodrill’, you ask? Dean Dodrill is an animator turned game developer, winner of Microsoft’s 2009 Dream.Build.Play competition, and the one-man team responsible for turning that winning XNA entry into the closer for this year’s Summer of Arcade lineup on XBLA. What does it take to go from being potentially lost in the endless sea that is the Xbox Live Indie Games channel to being the finale in Microsoft’s coveted yearly downloadable promotion? I spent an hour with Dust: An Elysian Tail to find out.
Dust: An Elysian Tail is a combat heavy 2D animated side-scrolling action RPG set in Falana, a fantasy world ravaged by war and populated by anthropomorphized creatures and exotic beasties. The story centers on the eponymous Dust, awoken from an amnestic daze by an oversized talking sword known as the Blade of Ahrah, as he sets off to uncover his past. Dust is soon greeted by Fidget, a nimbat (think flying fox with bat wings) claiming guardianship of the mysterious sword, who becomes Dust’s constant (and chatty) travelling companion. Fidget points out nearby treasures and offers some quirky dialogue and observations, often hilariously breaking the fourth wall. With sword in hand and nimbat overhead, Dust soon encounters a troubled village replete with quests and sidequests that will serve as a central hub for the story’s events.
I was immediately struck by the visuals and art style, consisting of expertly painted backgrounds and hand-drawn animation in a Japanese aesthetic, and upon realizing that one person was behind their creation, I understood this to be a labour of love. Character movements were detailed and fluid and interaction between non-player characters were presented through blown-up animated portraits of a quality normally reserved for animated series and features. Each new explored region had its own unique art assets and it was as if each area was one enormous painting that that simply panned around as I explored. Dodrill’s striking visuals are complimented by a rich orchestral score and soundscape, provided by HyperDuck Music Studios and Funky Rustic.
Gameplay is a mixture of platforming, exploration, combat, character building, and loot collecting that feels well-paced and should appeal to a wide cross-section of gamers. In true Metroidvania style, Dust: An Elysian Tail teases you with obstacles and areas that require future abilities to overcome or access but allows for easy backtracking through its map system and ubiquitous portal network. Experience points are earned through completing quests and defeating enemies in combat. Gems are awarded for each character level and may be spent on one of four traits (health, attack, defense, and Fidget..more on that in a moment). What is interesting is that each trait must remain within a certain range from the other traits, thus preventing min-max character strategies. Loot is scattered throughout each area or is dropped by defeated enemies and destroyed obstacles, and includes equippable stat boosting items, food items for quick health restoration, keys for unlocking treasure chests (complete with mini-game and the occasional ‘special guest’), and blueprints and materials for crafting.
The combat combo system is not overly complicated but does require use of its full spectrum for certain scenarios, especially on higher difficulty levels. Chaining together successive attacks without taking damage leads to XP bonuses at the end of battle. Dust’s special Dust Storm sword attack may be used in ground and aerial combat, puzzle solving, or in combination with Fidget’s magical ranged attack. By themselves, Fidgets magic missiles do little damage and dissipate rather quickly, but when swept up in a Dust Storm combo, these projectiles form a blizzard of mayhem, hurtling and damaging all enemies caught in its vortex. While it may be tempting to rely on Dust’s powerful Dust Storm ability, prolonged use will cause Dust to damage himself, perhaps even fatally. Dust also possesses an evasive dash ability that, like Fidget’s magic, depends on an energy meter that must be dutifully managed, especially in lengthy encounters.
Even though my time spent with Dust: An Elysian Tail was brief, I know that I have experienced something truly special. I am reinvigorated as a gamer and as an enthusiast and advocate of the medium knowing that talented artists can still bring their vision to bear from concept to completion in this volatile and competitive space. I am especially inspired by this developer’s virtually solo effort in creating a product that rivals those on retail shelves produced by teams of dozens, if not more. Congratulations, Dean and friends on this remarkable game. I cannot wait to see all that Falana has to offer.
Humble Hearts, I gave you an hour and I am extraordinarily IMPRESSED!