A seemingly old-fashioned side-scrolling slasher with RPG elements, Dust: An Elysian Tail brings to mind the likes of Treasure’s classic Guardian Heroes, which is no small compliment to developer Humble Hearts. Winner of Microsoft’s Dream.Build.Play challenge in 2009, the game was originally planned to be out last year, but you can perhaps see why the delay has been necessary.
Right from the off, Dust: An Elysian Tail looks truly stunning, with smooth animation amid glorious colours that perhaps seem even more impressive when factoring in that Humble Hearts is essentially a one man team consisting of designer Dean Dodrill, who has done the work of many men to bring such a kaleidoscopic conjuration to the 360. Lush visuals land you in a Disney-esque forest complete with little Bambis and Thumpers, who scatter as you run along the grass verges and begin your quest.
After an initial introduction where you learn to use your sagely-speaking sword Ahrah, your squeaky companion Fidget and local environmental factors such as the frequently-flowering bomb plants to your advantage, it’s not long before you’re deep into the plot, which hinges on the titular Dust and his desire to reclaim his missing memories.
Happily it is only a short time before even the most incompetent of battlers will be performing 200+ hit combos on various unsuspecting enemies, all of which are inventively designed, especially some memorable bosses, although the difficulty does seem to perhaps be a little inconsistent.
Soon after learning the basics and getting the hang of the various attacks and combinations, you stumble into a village beset by monsters, and this is where the game really comes to life, as you speak to the locals, and accept their requests in order to further both your knowledge and fighting skills, and to gain rewards, advance missions, and ultimately gain the trust of the townsfolk.
Mysterious merchants with glowing eyes provide opportunities not only to trade in pickups for extra gold but to stock your arsenal with a variety of upgrades and power-ups. They also alert you to the existence of blueprints, using which you can take raw materials and the plan to a blacksmith of sorts, who can then put together all kinds of additions to your armoury.
This level of customisation is perhaps not explored quite as much as it could be, but then it has to be remembered that this is not an exhaustive RPG but a pick up and play gem, that perhaps wisely stays away from competing with full RPG-geekery in order to maintain its ease of use and accessibility.
This simplicity is evident in the way that the skill gems you receive upon levelling up are deployed, requiring a straightforward choice of between powering up health, attack, defense, or your companion Fidget’s power, which comes in useful when performing electrifying combination moves that combine with Dust’s whirlwind. There’s no skill trees or character paths, just simple and effective improvements.
From an audio perspective, the voiceovers can be a little cloying, and the script errs on the side of saccharine, but this is perhaps to be expected to dovetail with the visuals – it wouldn’t make sense to have too much seriousness amid the playful cartoon atmosphere of the game, and fortunately lines of dialogue can be skipped through quickly if you so desire.
Dust: An Elysian Tail is perhaps the best of the ‘Summer of Arcade’ title, its abundance of charm and relentless playability doing it many favours. The hack-and-slash parts won’t be for everyone, and there might be odd occasions where you tire of mercilessly beating beasts with your dazzling armoury of moves, but the game’s beauty is such that you’ll quickly get over any misgivings.
Overall Dust retains the glorious simplicity of an 8 or 16-bit title but dresses it in fancy modern clothes, gives you some extra features, and for retro-genre titles like this, I can’t think of anything more appropriate. So grab your talking sword, try to ignore the bantering flying furball hanging on your shoulder and take off into the woods in search of adventure…
Price: £10.20 (1200 MS points)
Format: Xbox 360
Developer: Humble Hearts