Dust: An Elysian Tail

A side-scrolling fantasy action RPG done right, presented in lovingly detailed, hand-drawn environments of superb variety and quality.
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I began playing Dust: An Elysian Tail without much forethought or any knowledge of what went into its creation and development. As I side-scrolled my way through the hand-painted environments with solid if not standard hack’n’slash RPG gameplay, everything felt just right. As great as it needed to be, not revolutionary but up to snuff for the price tag. It’s a fine package, but I sensed that something was different, something I couldn’t quite pin down. The entirety of the game felt small, but not in terms of size, length or the variety of the world of Falana. These things were surprisingly huge.

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The game felt small in the sense that there was a tangible cohesion bringing every element together perfectly; a close-knit singularity that came across through the aesthetics and the gameplay. It wasn’t until I saw the credits that I discovered why I’d felt that the world was so sharp and comprehensively crafted: the entire game, save for the sounds and some elements of the story, were built by one Dean Dodrill (operating under the title of Humble Hearts).

Dust: An Elysian Tail, is a side-scrolling action RPG which has already spent a year on XBLA (it was slated for the Indie Games market, but was elevated to XBLA after winning several awards) and is coming to PC tomorrow. Everything throughout keeps a particular sense of loving craftsmanship, and though it does nothing to change the genre or bring anything new to the table outside of the unique level of artistic quality, it executes all these without major flaws.

Dust is our hero, an anthropomorphic swordsman (swordsfox?) who has been deprived of his memories. Something terrible has happened, and you are at the heart of it. Your flying, wise-cracking companion, Fidget, and your talking sword, the Blade of Ahrah, join you on your journey, with many well-written NPCs to help or hinder along the way. Though the story is nothing revolutionary, it captivates with ease and certainly suits the genre and style. The lively diversity of the environments certainly helps. The narrative paces along ably enough and is sufficiently compelling to hold up the game. Dust is certainly suitable for a younger audience, though it will not fail to entertain adults.

The gameplay varies greatly depending on the chosen difficulty. Easy delivers an experience that wouldn’t be out of range for a young child, say 4-10 depending. The rest of the difficulties outside of Hardcore will serve as a solid enough experience. But if you’ve done this sort of thing before and want to do more than slog through, go straight for Hardcore. The lack of higher difficulty surely deprives the game of a decent amount of replayability, as does the lack of a NewGame+ mode, but it is on par nonetheless.

The sum of the action gameplay certainly necessitates the excellent RPG elements layered on top. It’s the highest possible caliber of standard action platformer fare, yet it’s still standard. The depth of the RPG system includes your usual equipment slots, abilities, stats to level, upgrades, etc. Again standard, but that’s more than okay. A game like this doesn’t need to revolutionize, it just needs to deliver the solid mechanics I’m coming to the game for in the first place. Dust delivers.

Outside of the fantastic voice acting, spot-on soundtrack and effects standard gameplay, the one quality most outstanding is the art. The environments are all clearly hand-drawn, not because of any flaw but only because this level of beauty is only ever attained through staggeringly meticulous attention to detail. The style of animation alone will certainly draw players in, though it also might do the opposite. I’m not usually one for… anthropomorphic animals (I avoid the other term as it’s often used with malice and I intend none here), but the high quality of the art got me through, and I enjoyed it immensely.

At the end of consideration, what strikes me most and what brings me back for more is that this entire finely crafted game is that it feels more personal, and therefore more touching and engaging. It’s expressly because it is more personal; one man’s (plus a co-writer and outsourced sound) labor of love. It comes across in the little things, and that above all is why Dust is a must.

Mr. Dodrill posted a great postmortem on Dust: An Elysian Tail here on Gamasutra.

Dust: An Elysian Tail
A side-scrolling fantasy action RPG done right, presented in lovingly detailed, hand-drawn environments of superb variety and quality.

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