This was a rather lackluster year for Xbox’s annual Summer of Arcade, with no real standout entry that demanded to be played. Previous years have seen such instant classics as Bastion, Shadow Complex, Limbo, or ‘Splosion Man, and this year’s entries didn’t even come close. As the capstone to this year’s summer lineup, Dust: An Elysian Tail, developed by Humble Hearts (essentially the work of one Dean Dodrill, who was responsible for the art and programming of the game), had some pretty big shoes to fill. Can it rise above the ashes of mediocrity and bring about an exciting close for the yearly promotion, or will it flounder, and ultimately drown along with the other decent to below average games on offer?
Dust: An Elysian Tail puts you in the role of the titular character, along with your talking sword Ahrah and flying sidekick Fidget. You are tasked with defeating General Gaius, a man (or dog/fox-thing) hell bent on subjugating and destroying a race known as the Moonbloods, leaving a trail of destruction in his wake. I won’t spoil any more of the story, but it twists and turns somewhat predictably, yet still remains interesting due to some good writing and voice work. The script toes the line between taking itself seriously and mocking its own game-like nature; it knows very much that it’s a video game, with fourth-wall-breaking references to mashing buttons, a secret that harkens back to Castlevania II, and even a healing item called a “mysterious wall chicken” that drops from destructible walls. While in lesser hands this would seem cheesy or sophomoric, it’s both an interesting yarn, as well as legitimately funny. The voice acting enhances the story with a good cast of characters; even Fidget, who I first found annoying due to her shrill cartoon squealing, began to grow on me. The music is fantastic as well, evoking memories of times when I played Castlevania: Symphony of the Night ages ago. This game was clearly a labor of love for all of those involved.
Muramasa: The Demon Blade or Odin Sphere, each level looks handcrafted, and each area has its own unique scenery that set them apart from other levels. You’ll traverse forests, navigate a graveyard, scale icy mountains, or plumb the depths of a volcano, each area exploding with color. Dust himself moves like a cartoon, jumping, flipping, deftly slinging combos, with nothing ever looking awkward or stilted. It really must be seen to believed, and I defy anyone who takes even a cursory glance at the demo to walk away unimpressed.
The graphics are not entirely perfect, however. Most of the ancillary characters don’t move with the same grace that Dust does, and the animated cutscenes, though few, tend to look more like low-budget flash cartoons than actual animated sequences. Some might also find the style of the game a bit too “anime-esque” for their tastes. All of the characters are anime-inspired anthropomorphized creatures, with walking, talking foxes, dogs, and whatever Fidget is. I can see this turning off some people (and, while I do agree that it is a gorgeous game, I’m not the biggest fan of the character design myself), but the talking animals shouldn’t detract you from playing the game, as while the design isn’t quite up to the level of games like Shadow Complex or Super Metroid, it’s incredibly fun in its own right.
As you roam the lands, picking up quests and solving puzzles, you’ll be involved in copious amounts of combat. You’ll use your sword, along with Fidget’s magic, to slay your foes. You are equipped with a basic sword slash, along with the Dust Storm ability, which allows you to spin your sword in the air, either stationary on the ground, or twirling through the air. The Dust Storm ability, when used in conjunction with Fidget’s magic, combines to make your attacks even more powerful. This allows some jaw-dropping effects, which, coupled with the dazzling animations, keeps combat feeling fresh and exciting, even while the combat starts to feel repetitive after a while.
It seems kind of unfair to put the entire success of this year’s Summer of Arcade all on the shoulders of one title, especially considering how uninspired this year’s offerings were (save for Hybrid). While not perfect, Dust: An Elysian tail is a solid 10-15 hour action game with impressive visuals, a huge map to delve into, and tons of secrets to uncover. Even with a lack of difficulty, fans of the genre, and even fans of action games in general, will find plenty to love here. Not too shabby for a game made by one guy.