REVIEW: Dust: An Elysian Tail

Wednesday, June 19th, 2013

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Dust : An Elysian Tale Title: Dust: An Elysian Tail
Publisher: Humble Hearts
Developer: Microsoft Studios
Release Date: May 24, 2013
Genre: Action/RPG
Platforms: PC
Age Rating: E10+
Official Website

Dust: An Elysian Tail was largely created by one man. Dean Dodrill was an original artist and animator for Jazz Jackrabbit 2, but had little programming experience until now. Originally planned as an Xbox Live Indie Games release, his work impressed Microsoft so much that he won their Dream.Build.Play challenge in 2009. The title released last year on Xbox Live Arcade instead, and is now available on Steam. So, how does the work of one man shape up?

Dust: An Elysian Tail dark forest

The action and exploration are put to the forefront in Dust: An Elysian Tail. The map will be familiar to anyone who enjoys Metroid or later Castlevania title. Environmental obstacles gate areas off from exploration, and a quick glance will give the player a clue to the upgrades you will get later. Instead of each screen taking up a square on the map, the squares each represent an entire area, and those areas are large. Some can take several minutes to cross, especially when facing difficult enemies before the player has leveled up some. This is a bit disorienting at first, and can be maddening when searching for a missing item that the map is telling you is present, but the map is easy enough to adapt to, and the environments are a joy to explore.

The titular character, Dust, has a rather large array of attacks right from the start. The player can pop an enemy into the air, juggle them around, and slam them back to the ground so hard that surrounding enemies take damage. Dust’s companion, Fidget, casts magic spells which can be augmented with Dust’s secondary attack called the Duststorm. Mobility plays a large part in the combat as well, as Dust can jump, dodge, and use the Duststorm in mid-air to rapidly cross the battlefield. 

Dust: An Elysian Tail snow fight

Unfortunately the game’s biggest strength is also perhaps a weakness. These abilities given out at the beginning are fun and create a lot of freedom for the player to get creative. However, the powers gained later in the game include the requisite double jumps and slides of the Metroidvania genre. Since these focus more on exploration, there is little to spice up the combat itself. While the gameplay never exactly wears out its welcome, it does begin to feel a bit stale toward the end of the game’s ten or so hours. Dust faces off against several bosses, as well, but these are largely present to move the story forward and do not pose any real challenge to the player.

The good news here is that the writing is excellent, and any gameplay fatigue is brushed aside to advance the plot. As Dust visits new areas and meets new characters, the player picks up side-quests to complete. Many of these side-quests and characters are found in towns, but I hesitate to call them hubs. You will be returning to them, but with shops sprinkled liberally throughout each area, you really don’t need to go back to the towns often. Characters are interesting and very well written, and the player takes a genuine interest in each one. Humor is sprinkled liberally throughout the writing, and the fourth wall is broken several times throughout. But the main story is the real draw here, which is truly mature and inspires the player to keep pushing to each scene.

Dust: An Elysian Tail statue

Players may not realize they are stepping into such a serious story looking at screenshots, however. Unlike the dark story, the art style in Dust: An Elysian Tail is bright and colorful. The environments and characters would not be out of place in a classic animated film like Disney’s Robin Hood, and the whole package feels like a playable cartoon. This may catch some players a bit off guard, but the contrast serves the story well. The graphics fall apart a little bit when the camera zooms in close and things start to get very pixelated, which is a shame because this art is otherwise beautiful. The gorgeous visuals are accompanied by a stirring soundtrack from HyperDuck SoundWorks, and the package is topped off by solid voice acting. Each character is portrayed well, and even Fidget’s initially grating tone quickly becomes endearing.

For those who played the game last year on the Xbox 360. the transition to PC is subtle but still impressive. The environments look cleaner, and everything seems to just pop more. Keyboard controls are available if you want, but this is really a game meant for controllers, and the Xbox 360 pad continues to be excellent. I did run into a fair bit of slowdown in darkened areas as the game seemed to struggle with its light sources. It was a surprise as it is running on a fairly powerful rig, but it was nothing that really detracted from the experience overall.

Dust: An Elysian Tail fire bridge

At the start of this review I mentioned that Dust: An Elysian Tail was created by one man for the most part. Had I not mentioned that, however, the level of polish in this game would make it hard to tell. The combat could have used some more depth, but it is never boring, and the story, characters, and art are excellent. To top it all off, the ending is superb, completing the experience. It is rare for me to play a game to the end and feel like the game has perfectly satisfied me, and Dust accomplishes exactly that. For anyone who enjoys action games, and especially anything in the Metroidvania genre, you owe it to yourself to give Dust: An Elysian Tail a chance. It is truly excellent, and I can’t wait to see what Dean Dodrill has up his sleeve next. 

Review Score

Review copy supplied by author.

About Brad Williams

Brad's love for gaming began over thirty years ago on the IBM PC1, and is an avid PC and console gamer. Living in rural Vermont, Brad also enjoys target shooting and backyard astronomy, as well as spending time with his wife, four cats, and dog Wrex. He has a Bachelor's degree in Business Management from Johnson State College, and is seeking employment in the nonprofit sector.

  • Eric Taylor

    This is a great game, but I’d hardly call the writing “excellent.” It jumps around between what I imagine 14-year-olds consider “serious mature dark story-telling!” and vaguely annoying pop-culture/gaming references that break immersion a lot. That and the horrible voice acting (okay, mostly just Fidget) make most of the dialogue unbearable. But, I mean, it IS a really good game. Just not for the story.

    • ZigTheHunter

      I really don’t get what’s so bad about Fidget’s voice acting, I guess cause its a rather unique voice that isn’t going to appeal to everyone, but I had no problems with it or any of the voice acting. The writing in terms of the story might not be all that great or original, but its a much more character driven story then plot driven one, and the characters are likeable enough. And I’d say the the references aren’t blatant enough to be immersion breaking.

  • Krysanthia

    This game now sits as my favorite indie game, its that good.
    I got around 20 hours or so out of it, but then again I did everything, and played on hard, since I found normal too easy.

    Personally, I loved Fidget. I don’t get why people are saying shes annoying. Shes right up there with Midna for me as one of my favorite side characters. I love the little touches in detail with her during the map screen, you can see her eating/sleeping.
    Not to mention she is hilarious, “Did you just put a sheep in your pocket?”

    It was so surprising to me how dark the story was for a game like this, a particular scene in the game caught me off guard and drove me to tears. Great characters with excellent voice acting. Its nice to see more realistic portrayals of people, instead of high budget actors or actresses. It made these characters feel like guys or gals you could meet in real life.

    “We did everything right, didn’t we Dust?”
    “Yes we did, Fidget.”

  • Highly recommended

    The graphics in this game are simply incredible. How does one man make something that looks better than 90% of AAA titles?