When Dean ‘Noogy’ Dodrill first uploaded a pre-alpha gameplay video of Dust over three years ago, I knew I had to play that game. Lush environments, smooth animation and combat clearly inspired by Devil May Cry against hordes of enemies. In the years since its initial announcement, it won Microsoft’s Dream Build Play development competition, earned an XBLA publishing deal, and even became the indie highlight of this years Summer of Arcade event. All of that – audio aside – is the creation of just one man. Does it live up to the high expectations, or does the glossy facade crumble under scrutiny? Read on and find out.
Let’s get this out of the way first: There’s nothing here that you wouldn’t find in a Disney production, aside from maybe a slightly darker edge to the general plot thrust, so let’s just bypass the argument surrounding the game every time it’s mentioned. Nobody cares if you go into a PTSD freakout every time you see Bugs Bunny. Yes, the characters are cartoon animals, and that’s all there is to say.
What is worth talking about is the sheer volume of story here. Dust is a Metroidvania-esque game set in a large, explorable open platforming world. Normally the genre tends to be light on the storytelling, but there’s an impressive amount of dialogue here. Right from the start, the lead trio are introduced to each other. Amnesiac wanderer Dust, the sagely magical Sword of Ahrah, and little fox/bat/fairy thing Fidget, and the interplay between the three of them works well. Dust is confused, stoic and occasionally angsty, Ahrah is mysterious and wise, and Fidget breaks the fourth wall, lampshades videogame quirks and provides quickfire comic relief whenever the game is at risk of becoming too bleak.
So, what we have here is a gorgeous-looking hack n’ slash action game with an explorable world and a remarkably fleshed out story and cast. Movement is simple and fluent, and the combat is snappy and intuitive, especially if you’ve played games such as Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden. Right from the start it throws fairly large packs of enemies at you, which you’ll easily chew through using a few set combo strings. There’s a focus on air juggling, and controlling the masses of enemies with screen-filling magic effects. There’s no block button, but you have left and right dodges bound to the triggers, and holding attack at the same time as an enemy swings at you performs an aggressive parry, setting them up for a damage-boosted finisher.
The combat engine works well for the most part. Oddly, aside from adding a few additional magic attack types and a slide kick move, you don’t gain any many new combat abilities as you progress, making the action a little monotone by the end. It’s satisfying and accessible, but there could have been a little more to it. By the final stretch of the game – a spectacular but slightly exhausting brawl through an entire army – you’ve refined your core combat abilities to a fine art, but aside from a few enemies near the end that can parry your attacks, there’s not much threat from them beyond stat inflation.
While the combat remains fairly static, your movement capabilities steadily improve, letting you explore further into areas you’ve already been through. The platforming is solid and satisfying from the start, and expands as you gain access to slide through narrow tunnels, climb vine-covered walls and cover larger areas of air with a double-jump. While the world itself isn’t entirely interconnected (you travel to different regions via a world map), the individual zones have plenty of hidden areas and branch routes that reward exploratory visits later on.
Among the various goodies hidden in the more obscure parts of the game are 12 sealed boxes, each containing a familiar friend from indie gaming, such as Meat Boy, Yuki from The Dishwasher, Gomez from Fez and so on. Collecting these fills in a little bonus area where you can chill with your indie pals, but for the most part, exploring the further-flung areas of the map rewards you with loot, keys and a slowly rising completion percentage. There’s also 20 or so story-driven sidequests scattered around the world, and a series of challenge arenas, each with their own online leaderboards. There’s quite a bit to find.
It seems almost redundant to speak about the graphics – you can see from the gameplay footage, the screenshots and the trailer that it looks beautiful. The art is vibrant and bright, and has very much a distinct feel of its own – you couldn’t mistake this for anyone else’s work. Large blocks of colour with simple shading make up both the characters and environments, and it all has a slightly retro, 1950s-ish edge to it. The only real weaknesses in the art are a few enemies having slightly stilted animation, and there being a couple of cutscenes that don’t play out nearly as smoothly as the action or dialogue portraits.
While the game itself is the work of one man, the audio is outsourced, and brilliantly so. Prolific indie soundtrack group Hyperduck Soundworks handle the music here, and it’s a mix of rousing film-score style orchestral pieces, more videogamish tracks and some interesting blends of the two approaches. It’s solid stuff. The voicework deserves particular praise, too – casted and directed by a TV cartoon veteran, there’s a lot of actors here, and they almost all deliver their lines with just the right amount of emphasis and pacing. Good voice acting in games is rare enough. It’s almost unheard of for an indie game like this.
For a Metroid-esque game, Dust is actually longer than the genre average. My first playthrough on the (rightfully named – death can come in 3-4 good hits) Tough difficulty setting ended with me going into the final battle with a hair over 11 hours on the clock and an 81% completion ratio. There were still several sidequests and a lot of explorable areas still undiscovered by the time the credits rolled, so I’d hazard a guess that you could speed through the game in 5-6 hours, while most will take 10-12 and completionists are looking at 14+. Exploring old areas is quick, but there’s a lot of zones to explore. Thankfully, the world map tells you which areas still have treasures and rooms to find.
There’s no New Game+ mode, but you’re free to explore the world from the save point just before the final fight. All in all, it’s a lengthy, meaty package (ooerr, missus). Not sure whether it has much in the way of replay value, as the difficulty setting only seems to tweak some enemy stats, but you’re going to get a lengthy, good-looking and surprisingly well written platform hack n’ slash adventure for your $15. While there are some slightly rough edges betraying the one-man-band approach to development, this is a beautiful, solid, well-paced and lengthy game. You’d be a fool to miss out.
[review pros="Looks beautiful, Fast & satisfying combat, A large and explorable world, Surprisingly good plot and voicework." cons="Combat doesn't mix things up enough by the end, Some slightly weak enemy animations." score=90]
Dust: An Elysian Tail is released on Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade this Wednesday, August 15th, and will set you back 1200 Microsoft Points – approximately $15.