Dust: An Elysian Tail Review

Dust: An Elysian Tail began its life as a planned budget 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, however, Dust’s status upgraded to 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. With a visual identity akin to Muramasa: The Demon Blade and the heart of a Metroidvania title, An Elysian Tail advocates style over macabre trial and error, prevailing as this Summer of Arcade’s must-have download.

War is terrorizing Falana's anthropomorphic inhabitants. As General Gaius leads his furry infantry against the reptilian race of Moonbloods, normally docile stone giants and gargoyles invade peaceful villages. Amid the anarchy, the amnesiac hero Dust emerges without knowledge of his past actions, waking in a serene forest to a celestial Blade of Elysium. Called Ahrah, the sword can speak, though it knows more about Dust than first appearances let on. Meanwhile, the quizzical nimbat Fidget, Ahrah's inept guardian, also aids Dust on the journey to uncover his memories. The narrative drags 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, an odd twist given the forgetful sword master cliché. 

 

What is Dust exactly? I'm guessing a half-wolf, half-squirrel hybrid. 

 

Before Dust confronts his fate, he must rid Falana's lands of its demonic presence. The Blade of Ahrah endows its owner with the swordsmanship of all its previous masters, yet An Elysian Tail's three-button combat system still limits players' possible move sets, even with all the taps, holds, and pauses. One ability to note is Dust Storm, a spinning whirlwind that juggles enemies and amplifies Fidget’s magical support. Just 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 each spell's effectiveness. Fireballs that would be laughed at by kindling suddenly become pillars of inferno that alight the creatures caught in the blaze, and lightning 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, never frustrating people that shun combat while backtracking, and higher difficulties prove a suitable staging ground for players to demonstrate their reflexes. Bosses offer little resistance regardless of the difficulty, however, because they retain the modest intelligence of their minions. After evading an elemental attack, spikes, or lava, each boss can simply be juggled until dead. 

 

Using Dust Storm for too long will injure Dust and break his combo chain. 

 

The visuals depict many similarities between 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. Watercolors and hand-drawn locales unify to create a very anime art style. Background foliage gently sways with each swing of Ahrah; Dust’s cape whirls about his body as he dances around enemies with sweeping strikes, cartwheel evades, and mid-air tornadoes; and feathers fall from his manifesting wings during double jumps. An Elysian Tail embraces the furry subculture, too. Humanized rabbits, mice, and lizards compose Falana’s populace, handing out side quests 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.

While 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 in the screen's upper righthand corner. Within minutes, Dust encounters vines too slippery for him to grasp in his current state, except 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 lets Dust slip through clearly designated tunnels. The game is always adding to Dust’s traversal, so you may revisit mapped locations for exciting new valuables. 

 

Defeating a boss rewards Fidget with that enemy's magic ability.

 

Dust drenches players in a hailstorm of loot. Edible items like hot dogs, birthday cake, and cooked chicken keep Dust from the looming shadow of mortality, and stockpiles of equipment stay death’s loving embrace that much longer. Rings, pendants, and chest armor protect Dust, but their effects are numerical, not cosmetic. Enemies drop blueprints and crafting materials forged in the blacksmith’s fire as well, and vendors frequently restock their supplies, so players never need to farm for drops on the innumerable beasts/humanoids. Stat bonuses stack, too – I purchased a ring that multiplied Fidget’s attacks by a factor of three, from 150 to 450; equipping another identical ring boosted her 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 my enjoyment behind “breaking” An Elysian Tail's gameplay.

Seeing as An Elysian Tail is the byproduct of nearly five years of development from Dean Dodrill, however, it’s only right that he made the game he wanted to play. His inspirations appear evident throughout the twelve-hour journey, but Dust is 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 from 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, though I also dock points for their performance. 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 conversations, nor truly detracting anything if you only read the subtitles. Also, characters' portraits rarely fit the dialogue of the predicament, a disappointment brought to its knees by horrendous lip syncing. Smiles indicate happiness and frowns suggest sadness, I assumed. I still 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 that this Summer of Arcade could deliver a title that lives up to the event's reputation. But An Elysian Tail salvages the remnants, the apex buy among the bunch, even more so because of its competitors’ middling qualities. The narrative may tease with its slow pacing, like the developer dangling a carrot in front of his furry creations, yet the responsive gameplay and sublime visuals put An Elysian Tail on a pedestal as 2012’s Arcade high point. 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 (Campaign)
Platforms: Xbox Live Arcade (Reviewed)

John Tarr's picture

4 stars? Up until the last 2 paragraphs, you had nothing but great things to say about Dust. The voice acting and cutscene style must have been very distracting.

Nice review as always. I am glad the Summer of Arcade had at least one game worth my money. I will definitely be purchasing this game.

Josh Kowbel's picture

I briefly touched on this in the review, but the combos also became repetitive over the 12 hours I spent obtaining a 100% completion. There's about one dozen in total. But you are correct about the voice acting and cutscenes. Compared to the rest of the game, they lack the same polish, as if they were cobbled together as a last-minute inclusion. It's not a flaw easily described, though you'll understand what I mean after an hour at most. 

I encountered another issue while playing too. Whenever I unlocked an achievement, the frame rate would stutter for a good 30 seconds. However, I still use an Xbox 360 Elite with a nearly-full hard drive, which can affect the system's speed of loading the dashboard, achievements, etc. I haven't heard of anyone else mentioning the same problem, so I assume it was just a localized affair.

Adam Page's picture

Still can't get over the fact that this game is essentially the work of one guy.

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