Enough of those mind-bashingly-difficult puzzles in old-school point-and-click adventures like Primordia? Ready for some button-bashing action with anime-style visuals and Metroidvania gameplay? Get those hands on the controller sweaty…
Dust: An Elysian Tail is a new entry in Microsoft’s XBLA catalogue of indie games and as part of the Summer Arcade series, it shows that it can compete with its low price of 1200 MS points with retail games of a much bigger development team.
Warrior Dust tries to remember his past and, with the help of talking sword Arah and flying cat creature Fidget, goes agains an army which seems to to have played a big part in it.
Mixing the goods of genres
The gameplay is a mix of RPG, Metroidvania mechanics and action-adventure play styles. Levelling up and equipping the character with various armour, rings and other tools to boost his stats offer a lot of freedom, especially since some accessories can only be forged with certain items enemies occasionally drop or which can be bought in shops.
Fighting is heavily influenced by games like Devil May Cry: The bigger the hit combo gets, the more experience points will be awarded, but not if the character is hit and the chain is broken.
Combat can become quite chaotic, and strategy is replaced by button-mashing. It’s still possible to use Dust’s sidekick’s powers which can shoot lightning, fire or energy balls, but overall it doesn’t really matter (except for very few puzzles) which to choose when so many enemies are on screen.
Levelling up is also of a mixed bag. Grinding is usually not an issue, even without equipment that can make reaching the next level quicker. What is a bit disappointing is that it’s sometimes difficult to see how much effect the different attributes have. Better defense and attack, also of the the flying companion, don’t seem to make much of a difference with so many items to boost the stats and particulary enemies which become more resistent the further the game progresses. There are only few enemies which can become a threat to the player, and some are not balanced at all in their difficulty. Especially the end boss is so frustratingly unfair to beat that it nearly destroys the enjoyment of the game which was more accessible to people for whom DMC was always too hardcore.
Special abilities are unlocked more and more as well, and like the Castlevania and Metroid series, certain regions can be revisited by using those in the right situations (like double-jumps, sliding through narrow spaces etc.). But unlike Zelda, it becomes a bit random when and where they are found, as they aren’t an integral part of the story. It’s still fun to look out for secrets where chests can be opened or other goodies can be collected, though.
Tell me a tale
The storytelling isn’t much to write home about. It’s nothing particularly new in the anime canon to have a character who can’t remember who he is and has to beat an army. Some parts are quite melodramatic and due to exaggerated voice acting become rather ridiculous (even if they fit the characters, but listening to Fidget’s high-pitched voice or Dust’s screaming can get quite annoying). Despite the moral dilemma the protagonist finds himself later and all the people he helps on his way, despite the conversations between him and Fidget, the story and characters seldom get out of their cliché roles.
A wonderful world we live in
The presentation is outstanding: Except for some questionable voice acting, the orchestral soundtrack mixed with quieter tunes, is great to listen to. Even more impressive are the graphics which offer hand-drawn anime visuals in both the elaborate character portraits shown in dialogues, cutscenes and the vivid background. There are so many details like animals running or flying around in the wood, weather effects like rain and snow falling, that it’s easy to forget one is playing a videogame and not watching a movie or a moving painting. Character animations are also very fluid, and the enemy design is lovely created as well.
Even if the story and characters don’t offer enough mature storytelling material, the world is still something to wonder at. Not only does it give the player freedom to visit places which don’t belong to the main narrative, but they look and sound so different, together with their inhabitants that it’s a joy to revisit them and just marvel at the vistas the game offers.
It’s also interesting to note that the cutscenes are from an animated movie which is in production for a full-length release, it seems. So hopefully the world Dean Dodrill aka Noogy created, will be continued in various forms (as the open ending of the game suggests).
Go on a quest-ing trip
Something which RPGs are typically judged with is the quality of the side quests. There are quite a lot to complete in the game, but as levelling up never becomes much of a problem and items plus loot can be got elsewhere, there isn’t really an incentive to do them. It’s also a drag to find the individual characters as travelling between sections of a place requires a lot of footwork (more teleport stations would have been nice). The quests themselves can give a better sense of place as the player learns about quite some eccentric characters (like one being obsessed with a mysterious box), who can actually tell better stories than the main narrative.
An XBLA game of rare quality
Dust: An Elysian Tail might not win in the category best storytelling or flawless game design, but it is definitely one of the most beautiful indie games on XBLA. Add some great soundtrack and mindless, but fun button-mashing action, and you have yourself a Metroidvania title with RPG elements which sure raises the bar for other games. It’s also quite an achievement considering that only one person was responsible for the art, game, story design and further shows how close indie games have become to rival AAA retail titles with their high production values.