Dust: An Elysian Tail
Dust: An Elysian Tail
Developer: Humble Hearts
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Beginning as an 8-bit era-inspired game, Dust was self-taught animator (and now, self-taught game developer) Dean Dodrill’s homage to his favourite games: Castlevania, Metroid, and Ys. Dodrill began realizing more ambitious goals as he began to learn coding. Having a love of Disney movies, Dean decided to expand his creative vision to include characters from his ‘Elysian Tail’ universe and to merge his love of classic action platforming games with a hand-painted adventure of his own, with a heavy emphasis on characters and dialogue. Submitting a small, playable build of Dust at Microsoft’s ‘Dream Build Play’ competition and expo, Dodrill apparently blitzed the competition, with Dust easily taking first place. I have been back and forth in my mind trying to figure out how to best review Dust: An Elysian Tail. So that I make my thoughts absolutely clear, I would like to open with the following statement; Dust: An Elysian Tail is an amazing game, and a triumph of one individual’s creativity.
Players assume the role of Dust, a lone swordsman awaking in a forest with no memory of who he is, or how he came to be there. Dust is approached by a magical and sentient sword, the blade of Ahrah, who offers its aid in helping Dust recover his memories. The guardian of the sword, Fidget, also accompanies them on their journey. The majority of the gameplay revolves around exploration and combat, as well as engaging in conversations with other anthropomorphic characters to gain quests and offer assistance.
From the very first dialogue between Dust and the sword of Ahrah, I was enthralled. Dust has a wonderful and completely unique atmosphere, accomplished by Dean Dodrill’s amazing talents as well as some excellent sound design (the only aspect of the game not developed by Dodrill). Had this game been developed by an entire studio team, or if Dean Dodrill had only been the creator and lead designer, I fear the game would not possess the beauty and charm that it does.
When players engage in combat, there is a combo and experience system that out-does the very games Dodrill had hoped to pay homage to. Dust easily has better combat mechanics than Metroid or Castlevania. Dust can perform various combos using the X and Y buttons and pressing the B button will cause Fidget to shoot balls of magic at enemies. Players can then hold down the Y button to use the “Whirlwind technique” where Dust spins his sword in a massive circle, also sucking in Fidget’s magic and causing considerable damage to weaker enemies. Different enemies require different strategies to defeat. Some may require a certain move to break their guard, while others are only vulnerable at a certain time. Upon defeating enemies, players will collect loot and experience for improving Dust’s stats and forging items.
The platforming and exploration are also enjoyable. The only gripe I have (and this is only a minor gripe)is that due to the level structure and size of the game, players will often encounter areas they cannot reach without unlocking a certain move or technique prior. The way that Dust presents its story means that players will often have to backtrack to these areas after gaining new moves to explore more or discover all the treasure in the area, and it can be rather easy to be overwhelmed with incomplete areas on the map. If the map had notes or other indicators of what obstacle blocked your path, the unnecessary grinding of enemies to revisit these locations could have been avoided. You can always look at your quest journal to get a rough outline of where you should head next though.
Dust looks amazing. Actually, amazing is a poor choice of word to describe this game. Perhaps I should say: Dust looks absolutely gorgeous. Every character, background, environment and animation is the very definition of perfect graphical design. Truly, Dean Dodrill is a highly talented animator, with the characters and scenery easily being some of the best 2D artwork I’ve ever seen, regardless of the medium it is presented in. The conversations are a joy to watch, as every character’s mouth is synced perfectly to the voice acting, and every single character has quite an impressive range of animations. I cannot fault any aspect of Dust: An Elysian Tail’s visual design. It is 2D perfection.
With Dodrill primarily being an artist, he already had his hands full with learning coding. Because of this he had to find someone else to handle the sound design aspect of Dust. Meeting Chris Geehan on the XNA developers forums, Dodrill was immediately impressed with Geehan’s (and his partner, Dan Byrne-McCullough) musical arrangements, and allowed their company, HyperDuck Soundworks to take control of the sound design of Dust. The sound effects in Dust are impressive, but where the sound design really shines is the game’s soundtrack and voice acting. HyperDuck Soundworks created a fully orchestrated soundtrack befitting a Hollywood film or Disney animated feature (sans singing and musical numbers).
Each level has its own distinct theme (or themes) and accompanies the level and visual design perfectly. While I was exploring caves I noticed the music sounded dark, dank and isolating. While I was scaling mountains and reaching the clouds the music reflected the lofty and windy environment with beautiful string sections and gentle piano arrangements, and at every part of the game, the soundtrack always has a fantastic sense of adventure. Overall, the most fun I have had with Dust: An Elysian Tail is watching the characters interact with each other. Dust easily has some of the best voice acting I have heard in a game. Every character’s voice sounds the way you would expect, with the voice acting reflecting the character design. The last time voice acting really stood out to me in a game was in ‘The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim’, and that being said, Dust is just as impressive. Fidget in particular has some brilliant lines of dialogue, and on numerous occasions I have laughed at the jokes, or sympathized with her when she is scared.
- Brilliant graphics, sound and gameplay
- Adorable characters
- Fantastic story and combat
- Area grinding to find where to go next
Dust: An Elysian Tail accomplishes what developers dreamed of back in the heyday of 2D platforming. A brilliant blend of hand drawn animation, combat, exploration and near-perfect sound design, I can’t remember the last time I was impressed with a game this much (full retail or downloadable title!) It oozes charm and atmosphere, and I can only hope that Dean Dodrill has a sequel planned, or gets paid a truckload of cash to make his animated movie “An Elysian Tail” a reality. Proof that a one-man developer can make an amazing game nowadays.