This year’s Summer of Arcade on Xbox Live hasn’t exactly been the greatest. With some pretty mediocre entries thus far, it was easy to give up hope, but the last entry may be the shining jewel of the bunch. Dust: An Elysian Tail, from indie developer Humble Hearts, may not have the most original story, but it’s satisfying fun throughout.
The story begins with a cliché, as an amnesiac protagonist named Dust wakes up and is soon greeted by a talking sword named Ahrah, and an annoying stereotype of a sidekick named Fidget. Dust, spurred by the abstract messages from Ahrah, sets off on a journey to discover his identity. While the story is filled with quite a few stereotypical elements, it’s still enjoyable. There’s a decently rich back-story, and most of it is tucked away in dialogue with NPC’s which isn’t required to progress.
No story is without fault, and Dust is no exception. People in the world of Dust can be quite garrulous, as some conversations seem to go on far too long, but it’s all easily skippable for those who wish to simply get back to the combat. This is commendable, as it benefits those who simply wish to ignore the story, and people playing through on harder difficulties. It’s an aspect too many developers overlook. Players can also expect a good heap of melodrama, with certain story beats trying too hard to create a sense of gravitas. And on the flip-side, many attempts at humor fall flat, but cringe-worthy moments are kept to a minimum for the most part.
The story, though, doesn’t define the world of Dust – the visuals do. Saying the game is pretty is an understatement. The character animations are fluid, and the backgrounds are varied and have a painterly quality that is just fantastic. Environments range from lush forests, to deep caverns filled with glowing fungi, to hostile snow covered mountaintops. Each new area brings with it a new backdrop, and fresh enemies and hazards along with it.
Looking good is one thing, but doing it efficiently is a whole different beast. That being said, the frame rate hardly ever drops noticeably. In fact, load times are almost non-existent throughout Dust. Sifting through menus to save or shop at a vender is a breeze as player’s can navigate them as quickly as they can press a button. Honestly, I tried to break it, but the worst I ever got was a load screen that lasted mere seconds. It is truly amazing how effective Dust is at making sure you get back into the action as quick as possible. And it looks damn good doing it.
Combat is what will keep players coming back to Dust. Larger battles can often devolve into a frenzy of button mashing, but even when this is the case, the game still looks just plain cool. After a few hours, the hero will already be swirling through the air as a tornado of blades, and calling down various elemental attacks on the unfortunate souls beneath. Combat is big, it’s flashy, and can be extremely satisfying. And it’s the feedback players get while fighting that ties it all together. Hitting an enemy feels good. And intricacies like counter-attacks have subtle visual and auditory cues that make them easy to pick up and master.
This combat is then coupled with a leveling system to create a constant sense of advancement. New abilities are also scattered throughout the campaign, Metroid style, that constantly make traversing areas easier, and open up previously inaccessible areas.
But, this amazing combat is occasionally hindered by a schizophrenic difficulty curve. The majority of the bosses in Dust are complete pushovers. Like the rest of the game, they’re designed well, but simple strategies will defeat them with no damage done to the player. There are certain points, especially near the game’s end, where the difficulty skyrockets. It felt like some normal enemies were either far too powerful, or easily dispatched with one or two hits. But, these only served as occasional hiccups.
Humble Hearts also made sure to fill Dust with one too many environmental puzzles, which is a shame as Dust’s controls are floaty almost to a fault. This makes it easy to pull off crazy aerial maneuvers, but it also leads to a great deal of frustration. A level of accuracy is required that Dust’s jumps and slides just don’t have the fidelity for.
Dust: An Elysian Tail is a great conclusion to a mostly lackluster Summer of Arcade, but it sure is quite the finish. The game is gorgeous from beginning to end, and it pulls off a visual style that puts many larger developers to shame. If you can deal with the occasional bit of cheesiness from the story, the combat and RPG elements will provide a really satisfying experience. It’s definitely worth the 1200 MSP.
Dust: An Elysian Tail was developed by Humble Hearts and published by Microsoft Studios. An XBLA copy was provided by the publisher for the purposes of review.