Xbox Live’s Summer of Arcade has become a breeding ground for small titles to really shine bright. Each year delivers at least one memorable game, if not more, and up until the release of Dust, I was starting to think this year was going to be different. The four titles released thus far have been far from revolutionary or memorable, with Hybrid being the only one garnering multiple positive impressions. The quote “they saved the best for last” has never been more appropriate, as Dust is truly the shining beacon in this year’s collection.
Your character in the game is Dust, a mysterious warrior that is awakened by an ancient sword named Ahrah and its protector Fidget. You start the game alone in a forest as you are lifted from your slumber by the duo. You don’t know exactly who you are or why the sword chose you, but it is all part of your destiny. Sounds cliché I know, but it actually comes together nicely. The game takes you on a journey encountering several characters, all based on various animals, which drive you to the main plot line. You would be surprised how much the narrative draws you in, including some entertaining fourth wall intrusions from Fidget.
At its heart, Dust is an action hack and slash title that borrows elements from the cherished ‘Metroidvania’ style games as well as a dash of RPG. You can level up your character with skill points and equip them with armor, craft items and find blueprints to create new things. The crafting is a nice touch, but it feels pointless, as most items you obtain blueprints for are available in shops shortly after you find them.
Leveling up Dust is imperative, as the game is definitely not a cakewalk on Normal difficulty. It isn’t so much that the enemies are tough; rather the game fails to go out of its way to inform you when your health is low. You can assign items to the left bumper for a quick heal, but most of my deaths came from not paying attention and thinking I had more health than I did. Items constantly drop from enemies so you are rarely without a healing item; it is just a matter of knowing when to use it.
As for the combat, this was definitely a highlight for me. You hammer out your combos with the X button while using the Y button as sort of a finishing move. The Y button also becomes your whirlwind attack once that move is acquired, allowing you to string together massive combos. Landing as many as 1,000 hits is entirely plausible and, when you manage it, superbly satisfying. In the Metroidvania style, new abilities become available for Dust along the way. These not only apply to exploration, but also combat. You will learn slide moves and parries that allow you to stun enemies for short periods of time. The combat is much deeper than it looks, but also simple enough to just pick up and play.
For those who aren’t familiar with the term Metroidvania let me give you a little rundown. These types of games rely on exploration of the environment and going back to inaccessible areas once new powers are achieved. For example, early on in Dust you will attempt to grapple onto vines and fall off. Later you can return to this area to access new places to explore. It sort of keeps you eyeing places that are just out of reach during your adventure, and as soon as you get the new item, you can come back and explore more. The map is massive and simple to understand, and you can teleport from the save spots, which are scattered generously across each world.
Speaking of the save spots, I recommend saving and backtracking if need be as often as you can. There are no checkpoints in this game and getting deep into sidequests or boss fights without saving can cost valuable play time. Also, always make sure you are stocked before getting into boss battles. While they have patterns and are easy to figure out, they can sometimes shock you with a powerful move causing you to have to load the last checkpoint and fight them all over again. In a solid 10-12 hour game that can lead to padded play time.
Probably the most prominent thing about Dust though, is its visuals. The minute you turn the game on, it is stunning. Gorgeous frames of 2D animation burst off the screen in an amazing array of colors. There is nothing quite like it on XBLA. It is also worth noting that one man created the entire experience (aside from the score and voice work). Stop and let that sink in for a second. One man made this game, and it screams “labor of love” from the press of the start button. Outside of that, the score is incredibly fitting featuring some familiar tones mixed with catchy melodies. The voice acting is surprisingly well done and conveys the characters better than some games not featuring furry inhabitants.
Dust: An Elysian Tale is definitely a special case in so many fashions. It is a game that, by all conventions, should never have seen the light of day, yet here we are playing it. Dean Dodrill (the one man behind the majority of the game) has truly crafted a love-letter to gamers that should be experienced by all. If you have a passion for action games, the Metroidvania style or just gorgeous animation in general, you need to play this game. It is definitely packed and more than worth the price of admission, and it is quite possibly my favorite XBLA game to come out this year. This is what Summer of Arcade was designed for.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.