Retreaux Games has not been around as long as their classy moniker may suggest, but with the help of publisher Something Classic Games, their first offering is right on the nose. Two-man team Josh Garlitz and Andrew Steadman began development on Pillars of Dust in 2019, bringing together an extended team of creatives to help forge this passionate homage to classic RPGs. Their love of the craft is obvious as you journey through this nostalgia-imbued romp.
The vintage influences are obvious in the game’s art direction, which looks dated by modern standards. However, it reads well and fits the simplicity of the story and gameplay. At a glance, Pillars of Dust looks like an 8-bit classic, but small embellishments reveal a broader colour palette than consoles of the 80s could pump out. The game embraces its gritty world, with each map asset taking on a drab, dun-coloured palette which makes some of the more whimsical backdrops and locations stand out and offer relief. The enemies run a broad spectrum of designs, some of which seem out of place in the game’s medieval world, but the variety makes encounters vibrant and exciting. The bizarre, massive boss sprites absolutely break the 8-bit mold and feature some of the best character designs I’ve ever seen. The game’s storytelling is largely done in engine, so to speak, with a recurring action-packed cutscene that sums up the end of each chapter. More dramatic scenes lack animation and are often described via text, which is in keeping with the game’s retro roots. At key story moments, NPCs are introduced through ugly-looking portraits that fit the game’s tone perfectly, emphasize the imperfect world, and manage to give the pixelated figures more life. Finally, the chef’s kiss of this retro-styled portrayal is arguably the intentional graphical glitches that hearken back to a simpler time of blowing on dusty cartridges.
With the artistic direction establishing a clear tone right from the title screen, you know that you’re in for a fairly cut-and-dry classic tale. A quote from the Last True King of Allurgia sets the stage for the journey to come, and then you are abruptly faced with a choice between two characters. Carlton is a prince of the still thriving island kingdom of Lerm, raised by his uncle Karl, King of Lerm, and the elderly advisor Almera. Conversely, Gregg is an orphan, apprenticed to a blacksmith in the dirty slum town of Kadel. In their brief prologues, each protagonist undertakes a quest tied to their destiny. To inherit his kingdom, Carlton must traverse the fallen nation of Allurgia to uncover the land’s ancient secrets and determine what portents his night terrors hold. Gregg, who is also plagued by nightmares, is tracked down by a vagrant named Elmer who tasks the smith with uncovering his lost genealogy that could tie him to noble roots. Regardless of who you choose to play as first, you will eventually need to embark upon the other character’s journey as they both march ever closer to their appointed destinies. At the end of each chapter, you have the chance to change characters, so you can approach the tale however you wish. The tongue-in-cheek writing is quite anachronistic throughout the game, but it isn’t overdone. You may be worried about the story going too far off the rails, but Pillars of Dust manages a fine balance that keeps its yarn comical while maintaining a grounded throughline that holds everything together. Underlying the overarching tale are mystical orbs you find along the way. Aside from their gameplay application, the pink orbs give brief glimpses into the past and fill out some of Allurgia and the heroes’ elusive histories. While you’ll likely sleuth out the inevitable twist by the game’s midpoint, it doesn’t make the journey any less enjoyable as you wonder what quirky character or bizarre story McGuffin will send you further along your way.
Pillars of Dust iterates on its classic foundations in its combat system, which adds more punch to older turn-based systems. Enemies wander the map and rush at your heroes as you draw near. You thus have a chance to avoid encounters as you see fit in most cases. Battles play out much like classic Final Fantasy’s ATB system, as agility determines how quickly a character can act. All the standard menu items are present, but the addition of enemy “phases” keeps players on their toes. When a phase shifts, enemies grow stronger, so players are encouraged to kill everything quickly. To facilitate this, characters recover after each encounter, which encourages wanton use of spells and skills. Some skills and certain items help you manipulate the flow of battle and can prolong a phase as well, adding a new level of strategy. Players can have a party of two at any given moment, but you can swap your companion character through the guild to adjust playstyles and tactics. There is no clear indicator of experience gain, but character stats seem to increase every once in a while after a battle ends. The only definite way to manipulate stats is through finding orbs, completing chapter challenges, and equipment. While you only have access to one equipment slot, there is a large inventory of gear to find that can help you build Carlton or Gregg however you wish. Companions do not level up, nor can you access their equipment, so your mileage may vary with a given party member depending on your needs.
As previously mentioned, the game is broken up into chapters. At the start of each, the self-proclaimed historian Sampson Spigglebarp IV tasks you with completing challenges. They’re fairly straightforward and encourage thorough exploration of each location in the world, but more importantly, they are the only means of raising your heroes’ AP. The challenges seem easy enough in the early chapters, but you’ll find them harder to complete later in the game. Some can feel tedious, like you’re interacting with every wall, bookshelf, and barrel, but it’s quite satisfying every time you find something, and the payoff at the end of each chapter is worth the trouble.
Maneuvering yourself about the world map is standard fare, and you can use either keyboard or controller to get around. Both control schemes can be remapped, which you may think is mundane. In combat, however, you can assign up to four skills to hotbuttons, making battles that much snappier. This can work against you if you can’t recall what was mapped where, but it doesn’t take long to figure out again. Menu navigation is also straightforward with the game’s timeless old-school RPG UI, though some manner of inventory sorting would have been welcome. Despite the retro trappings of this homage, control is crisp and responsive.
Pillars of Dust’s soundtrack, composed mostly by Josh Garlitz with guest tracks from Tyler Mire, comes in tight loops that are brief but elevate the entire experience perfectly. It is a plucky collection of chiptunes that suitably captures each moment. Overall, it could have benefitted from a couple more tracks, but what we have is enough. The soundtrack is reminiscent of some of the better retro-inspired works that have been prevalent in recent years. It’s worth noting how the music leans into the game’s anachronistic approach in certain places as well, like the character select screen, which is reminiscent of classic arcade fighters. The simplistic sound library also suits and furthers the nostalgia-induced romp. However, some vocal cues are rather odd and jarring, sounding like something from a fighter or NBA Jam. Like much of the game’s cheekiness, the music seems silly and pointless at first, but by indulging in it without comment, per se, Retreaux Games somehow works it into their delicate balance.
By journey’s end, you’ll likely have all your suspicions confirmed, but you’ll also have had a good time. Pillars of Dust reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously. The developers certainly don’t, which is to the game’s credit. If you can accept the style of storytelling and the snappy, simple gameplay and presentation at face value, you’re guaranteed a good time. Retreaux Games has played it safe here, but they’ve also pushed boundaries in small, subtle ways to establish a foothold. They’re in a good place with their first RPG, so the future bodes well for them and gamers alike.