As a PC gamer I’m often privileged with boat loads of very impressive, expensive works of independent game developers, those trying to find their place in the industry with their bright, bold and fresh ideas. But when I focused my time on consoles beforehand, I had little to no exposure if their existence. Only now after turning on my Xbox did I notice the lack of Spotlighting on these little gem titles that can easily overshadow the rushed works of AAA devs and their greedy publishers.
Dust: An Elysian Tail is a prime example of a console-bound indie title that deserves just as much attention as this year’s Call of Duty rehash or Tomb Raider reboot. Put together by a single, incredibly talented, individual – Dean Dodrill - Dust: An Elysian Tail managed to slice its way through the competition to earn a place on the Xbox Live Marketplace courtesy of Microsoft themselves.
And with good reason. This hack n’ slash platformer packs a beautifully crafted anime inspired art style with soft digital backdrops, solidly cute voice acting and enough fancy twitch-focused sword play that rivals that of Ninja Gaiden. It may not have the blindingly vivid effects of Trine, but it’s soft palette will easily appeal to even remote otaku with its sword-centric, combo-stringing gameplay being easy to pick up without feeling thrown into the deep end from stage one.
Waking up to remember not even his own name, Dust – as they decide to call him – is instantly introduced to a mysterious talking Blade settling into his unexpecting hand with fidget, a nimbat-type flying creature hunting the sword’s energy to return it to her home world. Determined by the words of the sword itself, Dust sets out across the land to figure out his own past and discover just what exactly is causing hordes of monsters to suddenly raid the neighbouring villages.
After just an our or two within Falana you’ll start to see the resemblances to many classic games. The platforming combined with elements such as the use of nearby fruit to traverse certain paths may remind you of the early Rayman games whereas the idea of backtracking to earlier stages to make use of your new-found skills reminded me of the Metroid saga. Anyone coming from the recently released DarkSiders 2 will instantly feel at home with the thought of smashing through dozens of beasts in side-step chained combos too.
I’ll be honest, the level design may not be superb; in fact, the unintelligible map system paired with the game’s cluttered platforms and landscapes leave a lot of work to be done. But the lands themselves are beautifully crafted down to their smooth grass, glowing bubbleshrooms and delightfully hot remains of burning villages. It’s just a shame that many deaths were had purely due to the arm of a huge monster pricing through three layers of platform from below when the screen hadn’t acknowledged the fact that it may need to pan down before if could see the darned thing that I’d need to avoid.
Aside from incredibly confusing level designs and the awkward mapping system. Dust does everything else incredibly well. Combat mechanics are fluid, fun and actually leave you wanting to grind monsters rather then press on with your task. Dozens and dozens of quests give you the extra reason to back track to previous zones, though the fact that monsters in past stages don’t scale in difficulty leaving them to become more of a unscientific to dispatch rather then a joy to slaughter.
Fluid and addictive combat is where Dust shines. Not a bad thing can be said about the feel of slicing and dicing dozens of monsters in-between your skilfully thrown in dodges and ranged attacks, it’s just a shame how some lacklustre level design can get in the way of those high combos – especially when it costs you your EXP bonus. Regardless, Dust: An Elysian Tail is incredibly well done for such a small team. The art is beautiful, the characters are loveable and the combat is skillfully glorious. Usually with so much praise, the story would ultimately let it down – but not this time. Even with all that praise the actual tale itself kept me engaged throughout.
Visuals – 5/5: Nothing short of highly praised art. A unique anime styled twist with soft colours and solid animations mixed with satisfying sword clashes makes Dust a smooth treat from the eyes in every way.
Gameplay – 4/5: A solid and challenging difficulty curve makes the swordplay of Dust even more satisfying. Think of its mix of attacking and dodging dozens of times within a single fight with the risk of near death in a single blow like Ninja Gaiden. It’s hard as hell, but feels pretty damn cool when you pull it off. The addition of crafting, skill points and back tracking for secrets only makes the rewards that much sweeter.
Innovation – 3/5: It may not be breaking into new ground here but Elysian does a lot of what games have done in the past, but with more character. The satisfying combat, solid voice work and storyline make Elysian stand out high above a lot of other similar games.
Replay value – 3/5: 4 difficulty settings, challenge arenas, quests, secret areas and more can easily have you moving away from the main storyline for hours on end. Then, once you complete the game, try the harder difficulties and you’ll probably start to find areas and quests you missed the first time around. There’s a lot of game for not a lot of cash here.
Final Score – 4/5