OK, so it’s time for another gaming review! This time around, we’re stepping into a game that was released back in 2012 but that I only got around to buying this year. If you’ve followed my Twitter account through late June and early July, you’ll know what game it is. That’s right, it’s Dust: An Elysian Tail.
For those that don’t know, Dust is a Metroid-Vania style game set in a world inhabited by anthropomorphic animals. Our titular character awakens to find that he doesn’t have any memories of his past. He soon stumbles upon the sentient sword The Blade of Ahrah and it’s ever-adorable guardian Fidget, then sets off on a quest to find his purpose in life.
The first thing to note here is that the game was entirely designed and programmed by one person: Dean Dodrill. At the time when he began working on the piece, he had just finished up doing the artwork and cinematics for Epic Games’ Jazz Jackrabbit 2. The original idea for the game was for it to be an 8-bit Castlevania style game, but as production went on, Dean started adding in elements from some of his other favourite games, such as Golden Axe, Ys I & II, and Metroid. Back when he started on the game, he assumed that it would take about three months to complete. It took three and a half years. Was it worth the wait? In a word, yes.
For one, the frankly huge levels that you venture through are beautifully envisioned. Part of the joy of them is that you will, at various times, see where you’re supposed to go to open up more of the map, but you simply won’t be able to get there when you first spot the alternate routes. Moments like stick with you and leave a real sense of intrigue that will make you want to go back and revisit areas once you acquire new skills like sliding and vine climbing. The rewards are usually worthwhile too, especially for those that like to gather everything in a game. In some cases, the alternate routes will yield specific items to clear side quests or open new areas, sometimes there will be chests for you to unlock, and other times you’ll come across cages containing characters from other games. That’s right, there are twelve characters from titles such as Spelunky and The Dishwasher trapped in the game and, once you free them, they gather at a level known as The Sanctuary, waiting for you to visit. Even if you’re not familiar with the other games, it really is fun trying to find the little blighters!
In terms of gameplay, Dust is also a superb example of what Metroid-Vania games should be. As well as the need to revisit levels with new skills, you also get to level up Dust and increase his stats whenever you gain enough experience points. The best part of that is that you get to choose what stat you’re going to level up each time, meaning that you can customise him to match your play style. The core gameplay is also well crafted, featuring a battle system that is both simple to pick up but suitably varied in terms of what you can achieve with combos and different moves. That balance means that you can get by following Fidget’s advice of mash the buttons, but that you can also learn specific things by listening to Ahrah and his guidance. Achieving that balance makes the game that much more accessible for different players. And if the talking sword isn’t enough power for you to wield, you can make use of its fuzzy guardian too. With the click of a button, Fidget can fire off some magical projectiles to do some minor damage to enemies. Pull off the right attack at the same time and that minor damage will grow exponentially as the magical assault multiplies and grows in power. Pretty cool, right?
The story itself is decent. While the amnesia angle has been done before, it plays out nicely here, leading you through a tale of mass genocide, the inevitability of death, and simply doing what’s right. On top of that, the side quests work wonders to flesh out side characters and provide some world building for the land of Falana. In terms of personality and backstory, the main characters are all as three-dimensional as they need be too. Understandably, Dust himself gets the most focus as far as character development goes, but it’s not like the others are completely neglected. Even if it’s only through a handful of conversations, you’ll learn plenty about characters like Ginger and the Merchant if you take the time to explore enough. Of the core cast though, Fidget is by far my favourite. The little nimbat is a useful combat buddy, sure, but there’s more to her than that. Her design and animation is adorable, and she often adds the comic relief to the otherwise serious storyline. When the need arises though, you’ll also find her playing a pivotal role in the more heart-breaking scenes, as well as acting as a ground for Dust when he finds himself conflicted.
From a visual standpoint, Dust also shines. The backgrounds are cartoony enough to be charming while also detailed enough to be genuinely beautiful. The character designs feel like a high-end throwback to 90’s cartoons like Bugs Bunny and Bucky O’Hare, and the animation is very smooth. Meanwhile, the soundtrack fits the game well, with both the level music and the more atmospheric set piece songs adding to the experience rather than becoming distractions.
In all, the game is very good. If you didn’t pick up from what I’ve written above, there are a lot of positive aspects to it, and it is an incredibly enjoyable experience. But … it isn’t perfect. For one, the boss battles can be a little on the easy side. This may be a disappointment to some players, especially if they expected a truly hardcore challenge at the end of chapters. On top of that, we have the main villain, General Gaius. You get a real feel throughout the game that he isn’t entirely bad, and I honestly expected to learn a little more about his motivations by the end of the game. As I understand it, the original idea was for just that to happen and for you to have another foe to face after defeating him, leaving you with a true bad guy to tackle. Unfortunately, time constraints prevented this, and in the end, Gaius just felt a little rushed to me. That truly is a shame, because the story was otherwise very engaging. On the positive side though, the ending at least provides a good pay-off, even if the final boss disappointed me.
So, in summary, what do we have with Dust: An Elysian Tail? Simply put, it’s a highly enjoyable Metroid-Vania game that will provide multiple hours of sword and magic wielding fun accompanied by a surprisingly grown-up and dark storyline. The faults with the game are in some ways minor, but they do prevent it from achieving a perfect score. Even so, it’s more than worth the small amount that you’d pay for it, and is an easy game to recommend.
Final Score: 4 out of 5