Dust: An Elysian Tail originated as a planned release on the Xbox Live Indie market, a service contaminated with horrible dating advice and Minecraft wannabes, some of which may not be mutually exclusive. After developer Dean Dodrill won Microsoft’s annual Dream.Build.Play Challenge, Dust’s status upgraded to that of Arcade caliber. The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai met a similar, highly underrated fate, but these two side-scrollers are cut from a very different 2D cloth. Whereas Dead Samurai adopted a punishing difficulty and macabre horror setting, An Elysian Tail advocates style over trial and error. Thanks to the visual inspirations of Muramasa: The Demon Blade and the heart of a Metroidvania title, Dust prevails as this Summer of Arcade’s must-have download.
War troubles the anthropomorphic inhabitants of Falana. General Gaius leads his furry infantry against the reptilian race of Moonbloods while the conflict drives normally docile stone giants and gargoyles to invade peaceful villages. Amongst the anarchy, the amnesiac hero Dust emerges without knowledge of his past actions. The fuzzy protagonist wakes in a serene forest to the call of a celestial sword known as Ahrah, one of the Blades of Elysium. Like Falana’s furry denizens, Ahrah can speak, though he knows more about Dust than he lets on. Also, the quizzical nimbat Fidget, the sword’s inept guardian, aids Dust on the journey to uncover his hazy memories. The narrative appears to drag its feet through woodland glades, decrepit graveyards, and freezing mountains, but the ambiguous details play up the late-game reveal of Dust’s intertwining destiny between Gaius and the Moonbloods. For those of you worrying that I just ousted the surprise, fear not. Dust’s backstory may not be the most intriguing revelation involving a forgetful sword master, but the developer puts an odd twist on the otherwise obvious reveal.
What is Dust exactly? I'm guessing a half-wolf, half-squirrel hybrid.
Before Dust confronts his fate, he must rid the lands of the enemy’s demonic presence. As such, The Blade of Ahrah endows its owner with the swordsmanship of all its previous masters. The sword is the only weapon Dust can wield, however. For all of its graphical splendor, the three-button combat system still limits the player’s possible move set, even with the list of taps, holds, and pauses. One ability to note is Dust Storm, a spinning whirlwind that juggles enemies and amplifies Fidget’s magical support. Don’t let her shrill voice and cowardly personality dismay you. Fidget casts enchanted blasts useless on their own, but combining her arcane repertoire with Ahrah’s Dust Storm increases the effectiveness of the flying rodent. Sparks of fire that would be laughed at by kindling suddenly become pillars of inferno that alight the creatures caught in the blaze. Lightning, too, arcs from enemy to enemy, building a combo meter that rises into the hundreds.
With Ahrah at his side, Dust eviscerates wolves, golems, ghouls, jellyfish, and beings of myth with an elegant flourish, ranking up as longer combos deliver extra experience. Losing Dust in the unbridled chaos is a visual bonus, not a complaint, and dishing out 100-hit chains within the first five minutes empowers the player with the feeling of justice incarnate. Normal mode scales the encounters well to avoid frustrating people that shun combat while backtracking. However, higher difficulties prove a suitable staging ground for players to demonstrate the extent of their reflexes. Bosses don’t offer much resistance regardless of the difficulty, though, because they retain the modest intelligence of their minions. Defeating a boss devolves into evading an elemental attack, spikes, or lava, then launching the soon-to-be-corpse with Dust Storm.
Using Dust Storm for too long will injure Dust and break his combo chain.
The visualization depicts many similarities between that of Vanillaware’s Odin Sphere and Muramasa: The Demon Blade, but the vibrant bloom of spring flowers may also draw compliments from the Okami crowd. Despite the beasts that dare oppose Dust, Falana teems with beauty. Watercoloring and hand-drawn locales unify to create a very anime art style. With each swing of Ahrah, background foliage reacts with a gentle sway. Dust’s cape whirls around his body as he dances with his enemies in a hodgepodge of sweeping strikes, cartwheel evasions, and mid-air tornadoes, and feathers fall from his manifesting wings during double jumps. An Elysian Tail embraces the furry subculture though. Humanized rabbits, mice, and lizards compose Falana’s populace, handing out side quests to Dust as reason to explore the assorted landscapes. Unless you loathe furries, the floppy-eared citizens are easy to overlook, considering much of the adventure is spent outside town borders.
Although Dust draws breath from Japanese favorites, the heart of the exploration beats with the blood of a Metroidvania title, right down to the block-based map loitering in the screen's upper righthand corner. Within minutes, Dust encounters vines too slippery for him to grasp in his current state when Fidget assures her newfound friend they can always return later. Hidden keys, chests, and cages wait down these unexplorable paths until you acquire the right means of access, like a slide that teaches to Dust to slip through clearly designated tunnels. The game is always adding to Dust’s methods of traversal, allowing you to revisit mapped locations that distinguish whether or not you’ve robbed the area of all valuables.
Defeating a boss rewards Fidget with that enemy's magic ability.
Dust also rewards players with a hailstorm of loot. Edible items like hot dogs, birthday cake, and cooked chicken hidden in towers of rock extract Dust from the looming shadow of mortality while the stockpiles of equipment should stay death’s loving embrace that much longer. Rings, pendants, and chest armor shield Dust, but their effects are numerical, not cosmetic. Enemies also drop blueprints and crafting materials to be forged in the blacksmith’s fire, and vendors frequently restock their supplies, so players never need to farm for drops on the innumerable beasts/humanoids. Stat bonuses stack as well. One ring I purchased multiplied Fidget’s attacks by a factor of three, from 150 to 450. Equipping an identical ring on the opposite hand boosted the power by three once again, from 450 to 1350. While players do not need to spec Dust in favor of attack strength, I cannot describe the enjoyment that comes with “breaking” the gameplay.
But seeing as An Elysian Tail is the byproduct of nearly five years in development from Dean Dodrill, it’s only right that he made the game he wanted to play. His inspirations are evident throughout the twelve-hour journey, but the game’s not above some cheeky references to AAA titles. Locked cages hold various protagonists from other Arcade releases for you to hang out with in The Sanctuary, including Meat Boy, the kid from Bastion, and The Dishwasher from Dead Samurai. The dialogue even stars a Resident Evil 4 quote by Fidget: “Ah, he’ll buy it at a high price.” An Elysian Tail pays homage to other silly tropes too, like storing six living sheep in Dust’s inventory during a fetch quest, which our hero plays off like an ordinary occurrence.
It goes without saying, but An Elysian Tail looks good. Really good.
The voice acting suffers the most in Dodrill's first Arcade foray. I give the fledgling cast credit for orchestrating what sounds like a heartfelt high school drama, but for that, I also dock points. Emotions languish in the hands of the inexperienced actors while characters’ mouths move like that of an amateur ventriloquist’s dummy, neither adding to the performance, nor really detracting if you only read the subtitles. That, and the five to six character portraits never fit the dialogue of the predicament, a disappointment brought to its knees by horrendous lip syncing. Smiles indicate happiness and frowns suggest sadness, at least I assumed. I do enjoy the cheesy screaming and blatant seriousness Dust tries to convey, but I could not take his agitations seriously given his furry stature.
After Deadlight’s mechanically broken entry in the 2D space, I lost hope in this Summer of Arcade to deliver a title that lives up to the event's reputation, yet An Elysian Tail salvages the remnants as the apex buy among the bunch, even more so because of the other competitors’ middling qualities. The narrative may tease with its slow pacing, like the developer dangling a carrot in front of his furry creations, but the responsive gameplay and sublime visuals put An Elysian Tail on a pinnacle as one of this year’s Arcade high points. Dean Dodrill accomplished a dream few programmers will ever achieve: making his own video game. Many hours spent coding into the night certainly paid off, while the only element he had no real control over (the voice acting) keeps his fabrication from perfection.
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Developer: Humble Hearts
Release Date: August 15, 2012
Number of Players: 1
Platforms: Xbox Live Arcade (Reviewed)