Every once in a while I get sparks of impulse while on Xbox Live Arcade. I’m always on the lookout for classics: the next Limbo, old school platformers, awesome puzzlers etc. Whilst some games don’t turn out quite as I would expect, I find many arcade titles that are surprisingly good. Dust: An Elysian Tail is one such game. In all honesty I did not expect to like it as much as I do. It radiates childish vibes, which it isn’t difficult with a cast of anthropomorphised animals. Gameplay is certainly affected, a tad, at least in terms of difficulty and simplicity, but not so much as you’d expect. In fact, if you can get past the ‘cutesy’ exterior, this is a very good game.
You play as Dust, a ronin-esque swordsman complete with talking sword, and a fluffy cute bat-ish thing called Fidget that can cast magic. It sounds worse than it actually is, though. For one thing, every exchange has narrated dialog. The voice acting, overall is very good, surprisingly so in fact. Occasionally the game can be quite twee, but I was surprised how often this was averted. I expected Fidget to be a particularly whiney, irritating character, and I was surprised at how, while those irritating features are there, they work pretty well, as the writing is often good enough to offset it. Fidget is usually comic relief, making either silly, cowardly comments, or often snarky, sarcastic and genre savvy commentary. It is usually handled well, if being pretty much what you expect. Gameplay is a mix of 2D hack n’ slash with role play elements, and puzzle platformer, very much of the Metroid ilk, having areas with goodies cut off until you return with the right ability.
The combat system could scarce be simpler, but it’s stylistic and satisfying. You have your standard combo button, and a special button that is usually used to do a special torrent attack, which can be combined with the magic from Fidget (which on its own isn’t much to speak of) into pretty devastating attacks. Spam the torrent attack too much though, and you can damage yourself. This attack also comes in a ground and air version, both of which can pull bombs and dropped items towards the player, a technique needed for many puzzles. The combat system has a blocking mechanic which works pretty seamlessly (if a little easy to pull off), and a few special combos. The triggers are used for dodging left and right, which works pretty well. Because the controls and attacks are so simple, they can all be used together pretty well.
The platforming elements start off pretty unimportant and standard to begin with. The combat is emphasised initially, but later levels have some satisfyingly challenging platforming elements. Jumping over spike pits, moving platforms, unstable platforms and hazards. One great bit comes later in the game, in which you try to race up a mountain whilst it has periodical avalanches. Most paths that follow the story are reasonably easy, areas that have treasure will have quite challenging jumps and puzzles. Some will seem impossible, but that may be because you’ve not unlocked a new ability. Although some jumping puzzles require manipulating a quirk of the combat mechanic that allows Dust to jump to very high levels with his torrent or attack abilities.
The map system is also interesting. It has simplistic grids, which disappear during combat (but can also be viewed in the menu) that uses simple reference points. Each area corresponds to a grid, showing potential exits. It lacks enough detail, but it will have a circle in its box if it contains any treasure, which will become a small dot when it is all cleared. The grid will flash to show you are in it, and will be blue if it has a save point, yellowy green if there is a shop, both if both are in the same grid. Areas are pretty sizeable, so they won’t be easy to find, but it does narrow things down, and makes completionism quite possible, which is a good feature.
The RPG elements are mainly to do with levelling up (which again is simplistic but works well), quests, item drops, item crafting and some dialogue and missions have multiple choices of the ostensibly moral variety. Levelling up unlocks gems that can be spent on 4 stats (HP, Offence, Defence and Magic). You can’t entirely spam one, as you need to keep adding a bit to them all to increase the amount each stat can be improved by, but you can favour a stat or two. I typically have defence two higher than everything else. Monsters drop items, which can be used to make weapons, armour, rings and amulets with various effects. Items can be sold to vendors, who will then have that item stocked so you can buy more of it. This is a great feature, but it makes getting good equipment very easy, as most don’t cost much and money can be easy to get if you don’t blow it on health items.
The game rewards exploration with a lot of ‘Metroidvania’ style puzzles, using new abilities to find hidden areas. There are “friends” to rescue, in the form of cameo appearances from other independent games, such as Spelunky and Fez. These unlock permanent health bonuses, so they are worth tracking down. Dust can be quite challenging in places, but it can be rendered quite easy if you’re a good player. There’s lots to test you though, and keep you on your toes. Traps, environmental hazards, and enemies that are only vulnerable under certain conditions (need to be blocked and countered, or only vulnerable to magic etc). There are bosses and minibosses, although some of them are pretty easy if you know what you’re doing.
Lastly, I figured I’d mention the plot. The story is surprisingly good, both in terms of the main thread as well as the various sidequests. Largely, again, fairly child-friendly for the most part. But there are a few twists and turns that are remarkably dark and interesting, considering the style. Besides, the voice actor playing the villain is totally going for a Liam Neeson style voice.
In all, Dust has been a pretty entertaining game that looks pretty good and tells an interesting story, if in a childish style that mixes a lot of good genre styles to make a really satisfying arcade title. Certainly worth a look.