|System: Xbox 360|
|Dev: Humble Hearts|
|Release: August 15, 2012|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p||Fantasy Violence, Mild Blood, Mild Language|
by Angelo M. D’Argenio
What do you get when you combine Odin Sphere, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and Usagi Yojimbo? The answer is Dust: An Elysian Tail, the newest offering from indie studio Humble Hearts. It's a free-roaming 2D platformer with an emphasis on exploration, RPG elements, and hectic combat, all tied together with an absolutely gorgeous art style. It's one of those games that will make you cry not only due to its surprisingly dark plot, but also because of the sheer beauty of its animation. Dust brings us back to an earlier period in our lives, both through its retro gameplay and an appearance that strikes a balance between modern day anime tropes and the wide-eyed anthropomorphic cartoons of yesteryear. In short, this game is pretty awesome.
If you've ever played a Vanillaware title like Muramasa: the Demon Blade or Odin Sphere, then you pretty much know what to expect here. First, the game will smack you in the face with its outstanding visuals. The environments are absolutely stunning. The backdrops themselves look like they are painted on canvas, a strange combination of Japanese-inspired art and 90s animation. However, these are made all the more impressive by the many weather effects you will encounter over the course of the game. The rainstorms will obscure your character with torrents of water while caves will shade your character dynamically with random sources of light.
Standing out quite prominently from these artistically drawn backdrops are the characters, which almost look like they come straight out of Disney's Robin Hood. Dust, the main character, is dressed in Samurai regalia, right down to the tattered rice hat that constantly shades his eyes. He is accompanied by a flying cat/bat/fox thing called Fidget, who will essentially be your Navi for the game. However, unlike Navi, Fidget is actually bearable. She feels a lot more like a cartoon sidekick than a poor excuse for a targeting system and tutorial. She often breaks the fourth wall, but in a humorous way, allowing the game to get a few cheap laughs out of the needed tutorial segments.
Dust is one of those rare games that I'd hate to spoil, because the story is quite good. All I'll say is that Dust is an amnesiac with an ancient blade named Ahrah. There is a prophecy surrounding the wielder of this blade that holds consequences for the entire world as we know it. As the story goes on, you learn more about Dust's past, the meaning of the sword, and the fate that befalls him. All the while, you'll be exploring themes like morality during wartime, redemption, the nature of the soul and the afterlife, and more.
The story is pretty epic and at times gets a bit dark, but the method by which it is told can be a bit shallow. The writing does fall back on a couple tropes that are wearing out their welcome, but the game's retro animation feel almost makes it seem acceptable. Essentially, it's hard not to look at Dust through the eyes of a child watching his favorite afterschool cartoon. As a result, you end up comparing Dust to shows like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Street Sharks, and Bucky O'Hare, and the writing is certainly leagues ahead of shows like that.
The overall structure of the game is very similar to the classic Metroidvania formula. Though the world is large and open, your next goal is always in sight. Many areas of the map are locked off until you progress the story, though there are still enough simple side branches to satisfy the treasure hunters out there. As Dust travels through the game, he will gain new movement and attack abilities that sometimes grant him access to areas he couldn't reach before. There's a hefty amount of backtracking in the game, which can get boring and repetitive at times, though usually not for long enough to interfere with the overall flow of the game.
Once again drawing a parallel to Vanillaware games, the combat system in where most of the fun lies. Dust can string together quick and powerful slices that will rip his enemies to shreds. He is very mobile and able to leap across the screen at high speeds. Hundred-hit combos are the norm in Dust, and combining them with a variety of magic skills just makes him more deadly. In Dust, it's not really about surviving the enemy onslaught, but figuring out the most stylish way to chop them apart.