The story of game development is different for every project. Some have an easier time of it than others, with the results being drastically different in terms of budget and decision-making. The tale of how Dust: An Elysian Tail came to be a fully fledged game is one to inspire many. It was originally slated to be on the Xbox 360 Indie channel, a largely desolate place where rare gems are hidden amongst the many clones of more successful commercial releases, until it won the ‘Dream.Build.Play Challenge’ in 2009 that guaranteed it an Xbox Live Arcade release. It was delayed from its late 2011 release window, before finally making it into this year’s Summer of Arcade line-up. Can this rare Indie gem, developed by one man by the name of Dean Dodrill, shine among its promotional compatriots?
Dust is awakened in the middle of the forest, by the Blade of Ahrah and a small Nimbat who calls herself Fidget, with no memories of his past. It becomes apparent that the genocide of Moonfolk is taking place by an army led by General Gaius and that Dust is somehow linked to the tragedy. Sensing an imminent crisis, Dust feels he needs to go against the army while helping townsfolk in need. While the plot does enough to draw you in by featuring some genuinely intriguing twists, the narrative never seems to find a good sense of pace. Exposition tends to drag things on too long and the delivery of the voice acting is sub-par at best. This is a huge shame considering that the detail gone into establishing the world though extensive use of hidden scrolls and NPC chatter is truly remarkable.
Taking on the “Metroidvania” style of exploration based action-RPG mechanics, Dust: An Elysian Tail presents you with huge areas to slay foes and uncover hidden secrets. Combat is initially fun as it combines the best Dust’s Hack and Slash based swordplay with Fidget’s magical abilities. The result of combining the two at once in gameplay is devastating, but unfortunately both characters’ well of skills dries up completely around the halfway point. As a result, the combat quickly becomes a dreary experience.
Enemies that initially proved a minor challenge soon become mere ants waiting to be squished and boss battles soon fall to a wave of sword flurries. The last boss in particular, despite lasting far longer than the others, is dispatched in roughly the same manner. Perhaps this is because of the mastery of the crafting mechanics, combined with the easy to obtain resources, which make Dust fight like a deity. The truth is that the balance is most certainly in your favour, making combat a tiresome chore rather than a life or death scenario.
Going up against the army alone won’t take more than a good few hours, but to explore each nook and cranny takes considerably longer. Side quests feature fairly heavily, sapping even more hours due to their sometimes enigmatic nature. Fetch quests in particular are easily solved by abusing the shops ability to quickly restock on items registered in the catalogue; but one or two could involve finding items unique to an area, or finding a lost person. Trial stages provide a different challenge, pitting you against the clock to complete an obstacle course. Final scores are posted on leaderboards, with the incentive to try to obtain the illusive four star ranking on each stage being the main drive. Once these dry up though, there’s not much to do other than uncover every secret of every area. There are nods to similar games in the genre, including a huge rip into a specific moment in Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. The odd hidden secrets help a lot towards alleviating the tedious combat, as many of the clues are cryptic enough to be uttered by the Sphinx in Egyptian lore.
Those familiar with titles such as Vanillaware’s Odin Sphere and Muramasa: The Demon Blade know just how striking hand-drawn 2D visuals can be. The contrast here though is that those looked great considering the dated hardware. On the Xbox 360, the high-resolution graphics really shine with vibrant environments and a huge amount of detail on each sprite. Movement is incredibly smooth, even when the action becomes a hectic bombardment of sword flurries and sprawling monsters. The mix of orchestral tones and guitar shreds in the soundtrack provide a sense of urgency while exploring the huge levels. Once at the stage of backtracking however, the music quickly becomes repetitive.
What is most remarkable about Dust: An Elysian Tail is that essentially it is the vision of one man. Dean Dodrill’s world of furry animals is overly familiar in more ways than it is unique, but the combination of gorgeous visuals, massive areas to explore and a cache of hidden secrets to uncover is almost a guaranteed win of confidence. It makes a fantastic first impression, but when the action-orientated combat runs out of new tricks halfway through, things begin to turn slightly sour. The story to this Action-RPG doesn’t break out of the mold anywhere near as much as it should. Dust: An Elysian Tail is certainly no Super Metroid or Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, but it is a valiant effort nonetheless.