The 2D action-platformer has experienced a bit of a revival in recent years. It seems after years of trying to cram better 3D models into games that game makers want to make software that looks like it belongs on hardware from generations past. Fair warning, there will be some spoilers throughout this review.
Dust: An Elysian Tail continues this trend and asserts itself as one of the best digitally released games this year. You play as Dust, a character who has lost his memory and has a magical talking sword (to simplify it) by his side. You have a flying fox-like sidekick named Fidget who can be annoying but very funny at the same time. The local army is on a quest to rid the world of a race called Moonbloods and it is up to you to stop them from doing so.
The main plot of Dust is a little predictable but only because the game tends to foreshadow big twists so much that they aren’t surprising at all once revealed. But the game world has charming characters with loads of personality, and the short dialogue sequences have characters using beautiful animations while you wait through conversation.
For instance, Fidget’s wings flap during these scenes and this sort of animation during talking segments can almost distract you from what the characters are saying. That isn’t a bad thing however as the dialogue between characters is generally entertaining.
Another strong point of the game is the excellent voice acting. There are a few characters (Fidget and some children) who have annoying voices but that is the way they should be given who they are. Each voice helps to build that character’s identity well and you will get attached to many characters.
Combat is fluid and very entertaining. You will find yourself spamming a particular attack that involves making fire rain down from above on your enemies in order to push through groups of baddies who are blocking you from entering the next area a lot. But even with this attack spamming the combat feels awesome and gives you some awesome aerial fights.
You can counter enemy attacks by clashing weapons with them at the very same time. It sounds easy but it hard to master as some of the enemies have multiple attacks and you’re left to predict which one they will use. Trying to consistently pull off 500-hit or 1,000-hit combos without taking damage is very fun and later parts of the game make this even more difficult.
Another great thing about Dust is the bosses. Each boss closes a chapter and then reveals a little bit more of the plot to Dust and Fidget. Out of a handful of actual boss fights only half of them result in Dust killing the boss. This helps make the game more unique because the developers went out of their way to explain why this boss needs to be stopped and that killing them isn’t the right thing to do.
One boss has you literally beat some “sense” into them. This boss stops being such a bad guy after you defeat them. Another boss character is murdering countless people but is remembered by the NPC’s as the good person he was before he went on a rampage. These same NPC’s express regret over this murderer falling to your blade despite him killing innocent people.
What I like about this is that the plot isn’t black and white. Bad characters have understandable reasons for turning evil. As you progress through the game the enemies you defeated are remembered as more than just a stepping stone to move the plot.
It is the little bit of dedication from the developers to explain why one of the bosses became a bad guy that shows the level of care that was put into crafting the plot and overall game world. Most games don’t care to explain anything about a fallen enemy after you’ve beaten them. They are usually a means to getting to the next area in the game, and they are (to an extent) in this game too. But Dust: An Elysian Tail doesn’t insult our intelligence and simply tell us “go kill this guy to be an ever better superhero than you were five minutes ago!”
You feel sympathy for some of the people you defeat in battle and that isn’t something many games ever accomplish.
There are major plot twists throughout the game and while none of them are too convoluted some of them are a bit silly. What I’m referring to is the back story of how the main character came to exist. The revelation of how Dust became Dust won’t make you cringe but it does feel a bit too fantastical for a game that reminds you repeatedly about the mortality of those inhabiting the game world.
My complaint about why Dust is allowed to dodge death or becoming one with “the Life thread” as the game’s inhabitants say is that the individuals who create Dust (God presumably) turns a blind eye to all the other deaths of people in game. If they went through all the trouble to create Dust the way they did to stop an evil army whose only real advantage is that it is bigger than the Moonblood’s army than I wonder why they would even create Dust in the first place.
Obviously Dust is the main character of the game and I know the game wouldn’t exist without his back story. But it seems odd that these spiritual figures who have constructed Dust to defeat an entire army couldn’t have just stopped these bad guys to begin with.
And that brings me to my biggest gripe with this game. The main villain in the end is a let down.
This villain used to be a big part of Dust’s past, almost like a brother. Without spoiling too much this relationship between the main character and the villain is explained in pieces after each chapter is completed. Dust may or may not prove to have been a bad guy before losing his memory so he doesn’t remember if he joined in on the villain’s quest to rid their world of Moonbloods.
But the villain is just a mortal person like every other character in the game. The bosses at the end of each chapter before the final battle are all supernatural in some way. This fits their position as an end of chapter boss because, at least in my mind, bosses that end entire chapters or the game shouldn’t be as threatening as any ordinary NPC. They should be epic by comparison, possessing unique abilities you haven’t encountered yet.
The villain ends up being an old friend of Dust’s who is pretty much a muscular general with a sword. This final battle is truly epic due to how it is dragged out though, even if the final boss is far less threatening than any boss before it. Would it have been silly if this boss morphed into some big monster version of himself during the last legs of the battle? Yes, but at least he would have been more daunting and hopefully more of a challenge.
The soundtrack has some good tunes but there isn’t a lot of variety to it. If the game had a bigger budget for music, like those of retail games than I’m sure this would make an epic game even more epic. But as is the music serves its purpose but no song stands out above anything else you’ve heard in a video game recently.
There are extra challenges you can participate in but they didn’t hold my attention long. Part of the reason why I tolerated combat that was fun but a bit repetitive was because of the story and engaging characters. I wanted to get to the next dialogue sequence or cut scene so the idea of cutting through hundreds of enemies for no narrative-related reason didn’t seem to important to me.
In addition to the main quest there are dozens of side missions that vary in importance. Some of these side quests reward you with new weapons and loot while others simply reward you with a cut scene to tie up the loose threads of something that happened in the story.
There are animated cut scenes scattered through out the game. These mostly take place near the beginning and towards the end of the game. They are truly beautiful and feel like they could be taken out of any top-notch anime series. But there isn’t many of these scenes as much of the dialogue takes place in game, not via animated cut scenes.
Another stellar part of the game is its humor. You will notice dozens of jokes related to other video games and pop culture. Fidget, your trusty sidekick is usually the source of this humor. You will recognize references to Halo and Spider-Man right away. I will tell you there is a comical joke concerning the merchants in the game that relates to the raspy, low voice merchants in the Resident Evil series speak in.
Dust: An Elysian Tail’s five chapters will last you about 8-10 hours depending on which difficulty you select. The price is well worth it because the adventure you go on is filled with great, original characters who you will grow attached to. While the plot can get a bit silly it never gets out of control and you will enjoy how it unfolds.
(Review copy provided by Microsoft)