Though I loathe such qualifiers, Dust: An Elysian Tail is an impressive achievement for an indie game. Considering that developer Humble Hearts amounts to little more than a one-man team, humility should be the last thing on creator Dean Dodrill’s mind. With its addictive RPG elements fueling fast, electric gameplay, An Elysian Tail has no reason to be embarrassed among its Metroidvania cousins. One man can only accomplish so much, however, and An Elysian Tail succumbs to its simplicity and the limitations of a single person’s talents.
In a world of sentient anthropomorphic animals, the protagonist Dust begins his adventure with that ubiquitous hero malady, amnesia. A spell-bound sword and its loquacious guardian are Dust’s only friends who accompany him on a quest of self discovery. Dust quickly learns, however, that he may be better off not remembering and that an ulterior motive may lie beneath the sword’s calm guidance.
The narrative commands a significant portion of the game, but the characters and their struggles never captured my attention for more than a few seconds. Dust is a cool (if unremarkable) hero, but the plot fails to revise the aging amnesia trope. In fact, the token late-game revelations feel empty and significant existential quandaries are completely ignored. Fortunately, the dynamic between Dust, his stoic magic sword, and its guardian Fidget is well developed and balanced. Fidget is this game’s “cute” inexplicable Pokéthing that serves as comic relief to dilute the melodrama of more serious scenes. The sword acts as a wise, composed advisor, and Dust plays the part of do-gooding hero with enough free time to fashion a set of false teeth from canines torn from the corpses of hideous beasts. Each character tempers the extreme personalities of the other two, making the inter-party dynamic the most accomplished aspect of the story.
That doesn’t make the story likeable, unfortunately. I found something oddly disagreeable about the narrative, setting, and its characters, which goes a long way in making the entire game less pleasant. Fidget, the character with the most dialogue, makes a poor first impression and a worse second one. The writers undoubtedly meant her to be endearing, but her irritating, nervous voice coupled with her cheesy jokes makes the character a regrettable, if not outright unbearable, companion. NPCs are similarly unlikeable and I found the mythology of the world unremarkable. Although the voice acting is surprisingly competent and almost of cartoon quality, awkward and wavering accents feel incongruous and overly silly. Finally, the character portraits that appear during dialogue are inappropriately hideous and amateur. This oppressive and drab art affects the overall experience far more than one might expect.
If you’ve glanced at the screenshots, however, you’ll notice delightful background art, even if the setting never strays from conventional locales. Getting caught in a flurry of rain while slicing through pretty enemy sprites is just as enjoyable as watching the terrain go by on a jaunt through snowy mountains. Tiny Disney-like bunnies and colorful fawns frolic near sparkling treasure chests that beg to be popped open like luscious fruits, and seeing the spoils rise and fall to the ground never gets old. The limited resources of Humble Hearts are evident in the small number of enemies, a sometimes garish color palette, and a general lack of texture, but An Elysian Tail paints a lovely picture.
The crisp and fluid 2D graphics are immediately impressionable and the side-scrolling exploration combined with over-the-top aerial combat and RPG character growth provide an incredible first impression. Play ten minutes of Dust, and I challenge you not to have high expectations for the remaining ten hours. After just an hour, however, the initial high begins to lessen and the fun seems fleeting.
The combat approaches the grace of some undiscovered martial art. The aerial acrobatics made possible by Dust’s agility are a joy to perform alongside Fidget’s ranged attack assistance. Battlefields are wonderfully cluttered with magic missiles, enemies, gold, items, and, of course, Dust’s barely visible body darting from one end of the screen to the other (or from bottom to top). There’s a focus on avoiding attacks completely, as monsters cause dire wounds much of the time, but responsive controls and Dust’s sheer speed ensure the player has plenty of escape routes.
Each battle yields experience, and higher multi-hit combo attacks release greater bonuses, which provides additional incentive to avoid being injured. Enemies typically died before I could reach much above 200, however, so those going for the 1000 combo side quest and major experience rewards might want to try a high difficulty. At each level gained, Dust can increase one of just four abilities, but each increase produces such a dramatic effect that I couldn’t wait to level up again. Combined with a primitive, but enjoyable crafting system that doesn’t grow foul with its own complexity and a basic equipment setup, this may be the only aspect of An Elysian Tail for which I can offer no criticism. The RPG elements are essential to the experience.
Exploring the various plains, caves, and snowy fields proves satisfying, particularly once Dust has learned enough abilities to reach the more obscure ledges, where treasure chests lie in wait. The game compensates for a small world by allowing Dust to gain access to secret paths by backtracking after acquiring certain abilities, a’ la The Legend of Zelda. The rewards are sometimes worthwhile, and scoring 100% map and treasure achievements can be addictive in that inexplicable way games compel us to do stupid things for no reason. Teleportation makes travel convenient, but environmental hazards that are fun the first time are tedious the second or third times, when each screen is just a means to an end (i.e. that lone treasure chest deep in the dungeon). The handy map points out which screens contain treasure and in which direction new paths hide. Unfortunately, it’s often unclear if a certain path or treasure is possible to retrieve with Dust’s current abilities. In some cases, I spent time trying to reach a treasure I couldn’t possibly get, while other times I passed up those I could have gotten. This seems a minor complaint, but it adds a surprising amount of frustration and needless backtracking.
The faults may sound tolerable and the merits wonderful, but repetition claims another victim. Although the level design allows for some of this, most of the fault can be attributed to combat too simple for its own good. Every enemy, including bosses, can be defeated with the same moves, and the player never needs to bother remembering the few combos present in the game. A few repeated moves are all that’s necessary for victory, and death seems just a random presence born more out of coincidence more than any fault of my own. The game needed additional combos, secondary weapons, or more intricate strategies to avoid the pit of monotony. The final area in particular brought out the dreaded let-it-be-over mentality.
Previewing a game can be misleading. When I played Dust: An Elysian Tail at this year’s E3, I gave it highest honors in our overall awards. Playing a game for ten minutes leads to all manner of assumptions and erroneous extrapolations, however, and the segment previewed may not be indicative of the overall quality, or, in this case, may be exactly indicative of the overall experience. Ten minutes of novelty can turn into ten hours of monotony, and, while An Elysian Tail has many merits, repetition and simplicity prevent it from ranking among the best. Humble Hearts have as much to be proud of as they have to improve upon.