An epic tale of warriors, magic and… tails? The magical world of Elysium is populated by a variety of anthropomorphic animals – creatures with animal and human characteristics, each with their part to play in this epic adventure. This world was created by the independent developer Humble Hearts, winner of Microsoft’s 2009 “Dream.Build.Play” competition and was announced to be part of the Summer of Arcade 2012 promotion. A legend of Elysium, Dust: An Elysian Tail tells the tale.
Awakening to a strange voice, our hero is greeted not only by a flying sword talking to him, but also a big-mouthed bat-winged cat named Fidget soon after. In this meadow, the story’s foundation is set and the path laid before you. The search for the memories of our hero – who they rename Dust – is a long one which will take place across many locations.
Humble Hearts takes great care in the opening tutorial section to introduce the basics – for Dust’s abilities are intricately dependent upon this foundation. Just when the tutorial starts to nudge against the invisible wall between learning and frustratingly slow, the action starts. As smooth and visually impressive as these attacks are, they can all be boiled down to four components: basic attack, power attacks, evasion and magic. Dust can not block but rather he parries – a system reliant on attacking at the right time. While button-mashing is a viable option, at least on the lower of the four difficulty settings, the strategic combination of these attacks can create a chain of devastating damage and stunningly beautiful effects.
Everything in Elysium is wrapped in stunning visuals that set it apart from anything on the Xbox Live Arcade before it. More reminiscent of a cell animated Disney film, the vibrant hand-painted artwork of Dust’s 2D landscapes add a color palette and life sorely missing in modern big-ticket games. The foreground and background create such a vivid life to Dust that it’s hard to believe it’s all able to exist on a 2D plane.
Each location sets itself apart from the last as a work of art. From forests to snowy mountains, each location has its own style and vitality linked through a common art style. Within each location, simple things like weather and lighting keep their environment fresh and dynamic – never tiring of spending time in each one. Small details can be observed which bring the world to life everywhere in the world.
While details are found in the small things, it’s the larger world that is most impressive. Having created a world of myths and legends, Humble Hearts has also given it a lived-in feeling with the variety of new and ancient settings. Traveling between the dozen of locations offers a variety of unique locations, each more beautifully drawn than the next and more dangerous.
Fighting can be described as simplistically intricate. While button-mashing is a viable option for most of the campaign, there are enemies and situations that will require a more measured approach. Difficulty will scale appropriately depending on the story progression ensuring battles are never too easy. For these battles it’s not only expected, but encouraged to create a chain of attacks numbering in the hundreds without being hit.
Combining the basic attacks with the main character’s “Dust Storm” attack creates a variety of powerful and useful results. The Dust Storm ability allows Dust to create a whirlwind by swinging his sword in circle. This not only hits opponents in weak but quick succession, but also sucks them into the attack stunning them. The added benefit of blocking most projectiles and manipulating the environment – with exploding plants nearby – also adds to the many uses of this ability. Continuing the onslaught, Dust can use the ability to become a spinning missile to target winged opponents or those knocked into the air by his attack. While strong and useful, the ability is tempered by a limited use before it can backfire and cause Dust himself damage. It might be tempting to overuse the the power if it weren’t for this limit.
Dust Storm also has the added benefit of amplifying the ability of Fidget, the bat-winged cat. Her powers allow her to create projectiles – limited by a stamina meter – that when combined with the wind power create devastating area-of-effect attacks.
Successive combinations without being hit raise the hit counter which in turn grants Experience Bonus. Fighting smart has its benefits, as leveling up grants a jewel used to raise Dust’s stats in one of the four characteristics. As can be expected, Health raised the overall health bar, Fidget refers to the the winged-companion and her magic abilities, Strength increases damage from basic attack while Defense decreases damage taken from enemies and environmental hazards.
Each level raises the character stats substantially – which helps in part by the balanced enemy difficulty – causing the player to feel immediately empowered. An interesting mechanic ensures the stat progression remains somewhat balanced where progress can only be continued as long a minimum of each category is maintained. While some may not enjoy this feature, it does serve to ensure an unbalanced Dust is not created leading to a frustrating weakness against some enemy types. Further upgrades can be used to manipulate Dust into the play-style desired by use of attachable equipment supplementing the players ability to further customize stats not enhanced by distribution of ability crystals when a level up is achieved.
Dust: An Elysian Tail successfully marries the Castlevania and Action-RPG gameplays to create the best of both genres. There are a variety of locations locked off until abilities are obtained; backtracking is expected but not demanding and of course – in true RPG fashion – there are quests to be completed and loot to be gathered.
The RPG elements of leveling up and equipping better armor are well represented within Dust. New equipment can be found from enemy drops; more commonly they will be created by combining materials acquired from enemy drops at a blacksmith. Each item has a description of its own – which often contain a quirky sense of humor and a benefit to be measured. Some may offer greater attack power but sacrifice defense; it’s up to the player to decide their style.
The quests are given by towns folk and in some of the many locations across the map. From these quests, new areas and items can be obtained; while it’s possible to skip them, they successfully incentivize themselves. Dust still occasionally suffers from the umpteenth fetch-quest reluctance common among RPGs but the variety and rewards should help encourage their completion. Sometimes the quests require traveling to an otherwise unknown location, but the majority can be completed through the course of the game with minimal back-traveling. This creates a smooth and worthwhile experience that leaves players feeling accomplished and not burdened by the abundance of quests stored in their Log.
Progressing through the story introduces new mechanics that increase the arsenal of moves and creates an opportunity to reach previously unobtainable locations. Some of these locations will require passing and returning when the ability has been obtained in order to explore. In many cases, these abilities serve many purposes often to progress the story and unlock areas Dust should not reach before his time. However, like the Castlevania genre before it, one such purpose of these abilities is to lock away areas and hide valuable objects.
Some such valuable objects trapped behind these mechanics are treasures and collectibles of varying values, both monetary and objective. To unlock these treasures, keys are required which are located around the environment, some more easily reached than others but all worth their costs to obtain them.
One such treasure hidden through Elysium are cages sealed with four locks. Within these cages are beings of great power to lend you a hand. Many of these creatures will be instantly recognizable by XBLA gaming enthusiasts and casual gamer alike. There are only twelve such cages, but each grants a permanent bonus that will make gathering them worth beyond unlocking the 10 gamerscore achievement.
Another kind of these treasures are locked away in chests requiring only one key and the completion of a simple timed button-matching combination. While some may hear “key lock” and cringe, the mechanism was surprisingly enjoyable and had a style of its own. Within these chests are objects of value, such as gold for which to purchase from a merchant or items of great value and even greater benefits in your journey.
Along the path to regain Dust’s memories, a number of locations will be visited, characters met, and secrets discovered. While not required, finding each item and reading the often quirky entries will grant insight into the world of Elysium and help unlock its secrets.
These items and everything within Elysium feel like they belong and offer more to the gameplay than just reading material. The inhabitants of the villages don’t just serve up quests, but have their own idiosyncrasies that raise them above simple background characters. While at times the urge to rush through and skip dialogue - something Dust enables on almost any conversation – might be tempting, but patience for the sake of immersion often wins out. These instances of interaction are often rewarded with moments of hilarity and personality.
None is more full of personality as your companion, Fidget. Often the source of snappy and sarcastic humor, she helps keep the brevity in all but the most grounded of moments. Despite Dust being the main protagonist, it’s Fidget who regularly steals the show.
Dust starts his journey unaware of who he is or how he came to be. This is the tale of his journey – his redemption. Every journey starts with one step, and Dust: An Elysian Tail kicks it off running from start to finish in a style all it’s own.
While a straight run-through on lower difficulty settings may take roughly seven hours to complete, Dust offers much more in the form of quests and side-story. Completing the entire story with all its content can potentially require up to twenty hours on higher difficulty settings – something even full retail titles often fail to offer deliver. If only the challenges and accompanying leaderboards could offer more of a reason to return. As it is, the exploring of the world and unique characters can pull you back, but once a 100% is obtained there isn’t much else to do.
Taking interactive entertainment to a level rarely seen, Humble Hearts has created a piece of artwork – yes, this qualifies as “Art” with a capital “A” – that will live long past the initial shock of the masterful visuals. While the artwork is the most obvious of the qualities of Dust, the overall care given to the small details are what really set it apart. The most glaring of errors takes place in the final minutes of the game – a contradictory dialogue – which stands out only because it’s as a scratch on an otherwise exquisite masterpiece. The overwhelmingly smooth integration of action, storytelling, thoughtfulness and depth to the world creates an XBLA title that will stand among the greats of its peers.
Dust: An Elysian Tail is available on the Xbox Marketplace as part of the Summer of Arcade 2012 promotion for 1200 MS Points ($15) on August 15th 2012.
Editor’s Note: Humble Hearts gave Front Towards Gamer an advance review copy of Dust: An Elysian Tale.