Dust: An Elysian Tail is the shining point of the Xbox Summer of Arcade, proving that good things can come in 1,200 MS Point packages. At its core, this side-scrolling RPG is simple, created almost exclusively by one man, but it has been polished so lovingly that only something special could come out of it.
This polish is most immediately obvious in the actual appearance of the game. While Dust takes its inspiration from the 2D games of the 8-bit era, it delivers it in hand-crafted HD. The character models may be cartoony, with a child-friendly charm that is occasionally at odds with the more mature moments in the story, but the world in which they live is beautiful. The themes are standard – the peaceful village, the snowy landscape, the world of lava that turns against you – but are represented with artful, hand-drawn backdrops. Particularly notable is the forest in which the game begins. Sunlight streams through the gaps in the trees. The music is gentle, unobtrusive. Every now and then, deer skip across the screen.
The thought the creator has put into this game is obvious in these little touches. While most of the maps are populated instead by monsters to be defeated, the occasional presence of butterflies or bunnies brings the world to life. So, too, does the changing weather. And this game has to have one of the most beautiful map screens ever, with functionality – each place you can visit is accompanied by information on the percentage of quests you've completed and treasure you've found there – not getting in the way of form.
You travel through this detailed world as Dust, a troubled amnesiac with a voice like a teenage boy, and his two companions: a talking sword, and a Nimbat called Fidget. This little flying creature might seem like an annoyance at first thanks to its high-pitched speech, but its tendency to spot upcoming points of interest helps to move the story along, and the progression of its relationship with Dust is responsible for much of the humour in the game. Since this is an RPG, you'll also meet plenty of quest- or information-giving characters along the way. Some of these are successfully relatable despite looking like animal-themed cereal box mascots, but others are barely distinguishable by anything other than their accent, the collection of which ranges from Scottish to Irish to Italian in one small town.
Aside from these and collectable “friends” (i.e. characters from another Indie game to which creator Dean Dodrill obviously wanted to pay tribute), the only other living things you'll come across are the monsters, which look like they've come straight out of a Studio Ghibli film. Monsters appear very regularly, usually in groups, and must be cut down with Dust's magical sword. Besides the occasional break to be had in using a Quick Time Event to open a treasure chest, or an exploration puzzle that requires floating a glowing fruit to light Dust's way, most of your time with the game will be spent using a variety of combos to clear these troops of creatures. Luckily, while probably not as complicated as some might like, the combat is satisfying, made enjoyable by the smoothness of the animation and Dust's easy motion.
Any player who does want a little more of a challenge can turn up the difficulty – though the frequent save points prevent this game from ever becoming as frustrating as its spiritual predecessors – and those who just want to sail through for the sake of finding out who Dust really is can turn it down. At the lowest level, Dust won't be penalised for losing all of his health, instead reviving exactly where he fell, and the player can clear a whole screen of enemies with just one attack. It might seem pointless to some to remove any real sense of challenge like this, but for the sake of kids and those who are in it for the story, more games ought to provide this option.
The “casual” difficulty level also comes in handy for those who are beginners when it comes to RPGs, since it automatically picks stats to be improved when Dust gains a level. In general, the veteran RPG-player may find Dust a little basic, but it covers the necessary ground with care and a sense of humour. The crafting system is fairly arbitrary, since any ingredient can be made infinitely available by selling one sample to any shopkeeper, but there are a few interesting items that can come out of it, though equipping them won't change Dust's appearance. The scope for choice in the game is extremely limited, for the sake of the plot, but – like all good RPGs – the player is encouraged to go back to worlds already visited to use newly learned skills or complete non-mandatory tasks. These side quests are delivered with a good dose of humour, too. “Seriously?” Fidget demands of Dust, “We're going after that jerk's laundry? We're going on a laundry quest?”
Whether it's characters admitting that they're giving you a quest because they're too lazy to do it themselves, or Fidget's awareness that it's a character in a video game - “Oh my, he really should've saved first” – this light comedy can be found throughout the game, balancing out the more serious themes. And there are some truly emotional moments, as well as some interesting twists, all of which combines to keep you playing through to the end.
This game has its weaknesses, but none that significantly removes from the experience. Instead, each element comes together to form a comfortable vessel for the tale (or tail) Dust tells.
For Dust you are, and to Dust you will return.