Prior to (and even after) its release on Xbox Live Arcade, I wasn’t terribly interested in Dust: An Elysian Tail. It was only after hearing the phenomenal soundtrack by HyperDuck Soundworks that I decided to give the game a look — and I was glad I did; an action/platforming RPG in the vein of Castlevania, Dust hooked me in its original release, and I eagerly awaited a possible Steam version. Fortunately, less than a year later, here we are, with all my dreams coming true.
The game puts you in the shoes of an anthropomorphic amnesiac called Dust, and teams him up with floating friend Fidget and wizened talking sword Ahrah. Together, the three of you travel the land of Falana, righting wrongs and uncovering the secrets of Dust’s true identity. The plot walks a tight balancing act between family-friendly and dire darkness, and while it’s successful overall, some characters (Fidget) do tend to add a somewhat childish, yet still charming flavor to the tale. Despite the world’s somewhat medieval vibe, the dialogue is wholly modern, which is oddly jarring, but in a Disney-film-set-in-the-olden-days-but-everyone-talks-like-it’s-1990 sort of way. The banter between the three leads is mostly fun, and goes a long way to establishing them as companions — and eventually, friends.
As I mentioned, the game unfolds much in the same way as the Symphony of the Night flavor of Castlevanias: explore a variety of locations in 2D space, gather new equipment and ability upgrades to slowly expand your movement possibilities, fight lots of enemies and bosses, help out others via side quests, and gather hidden treasure. While Dust only has access to his sword and several of Fidget’s magical projectiles, the tight physics and the outstanding combat keep the game feeling exciting all the way through. Mixing and matching various attacks and combos is thrilling, and combined with the awesome animation, the battles are utterly chaotic and begin to seem like one epic, violent dance. The final level and battle of the game are an utter symphony of carnage, and I found myself taking more than a few screenshots just to reflect later on how crazy everything looked. Fortunately, the controls are tight, and you’re very much in control of every slash, smash, and dodge. Dust occasionally turns to face a target other than the one desired, but it doesn’t happen nearly often enough to really bother me. Also, while the entire game felt very fair, there is one particular enemy late in the adventure that can break all of the established rules of battle. Parrying you while facing the opposite direction or knocked down to the ground and dodging into the background with far greater frequency than even the final boss, this enemy felt a little cheap — though this is admittedly a nitpick that only affects the final hour or two of the game.
Visually, Dust looks like what every Disney game from the 1990’s aspired to be. The hand-drawn background art is gorgeous and diverse, and the character models are big, colorful, and move with a fluid grace that gives Rayman a run for his lums. There are numerous particle effects like rain, wind, snow, and ash, and tons of dramatic lighting and blur effects during combat. If 2D graphics were food, I would eat Dust all day.
I (as well as several others here at RPGFan) have made no secret of my love for this game’s soundtrack, and my fellow editor Neal Chandran summed things up quite nicely in his review, so be sure to check that out for more in-depth commentary. The score is deep, emotional, and diverse, and lends a huge degree of weight to the various locations and scenes it underscores. There’s plenty of audio feedback during combat and in menus too, and all of it lives up to the high-water mark set by the graphics and music. The voice acting is generally pretty good — Dust in particular gives a great performance — but a few here and there (Fidget) are a wee bit cutesy for my taste. Still, no character’s voice is outright bad.
The PC version automatically detects your control setup and changes the menu layout to suit your choice of mouse and keyboard, keyboard, or gamepad. Keyboard/mouse combinations are certainly serviceable, but the best way to play is undoubtedly with a controller in your hands. There’s also a nice selection of knobs and dials to prettify your visual experience if you’ve got the hardware for it. Considering all of that, Dust absolutely makes a great transition to PC.
The game has a set of four difficulty options, the usual suite of Steam achievements, and several challenge rooms for you to struggle with, as well. Playing on hardcore difficulty and completing 100% of the game took me in the neighborhood of 19 hours, so there’s certainly plenty of game here for the price, too. Dust was undoubtedly a labor of love by its creator, and it shows. This game oozes craft, artistry, and love, and shows it off in every facet of its design. There’s great gameplay, graphics, music, and heart here, and I have no reservations whatsoever in wholeheartedly recommending it to anyone that enjoys these kinds of games.