Developed by Humble Hearts’ Dean Dodrill, Dust: An Elysian Tail is a 2D action RPG platformer that takes inspiration from classic titles like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and Metroid. Much like those classic titles, Dust puts as much emphasis on combat as it does on its plot. The game centers on an amnesiac warrior named Dust who awakes in a strange forest and happens upon a magical talking sword called The Blade of Arah accompanied by a wise-cracking flying creature named Fidget. Dust does not remember the events leading up to this but with the help of the Blade and Fidget he will uncover his seemingly dark past while battling through a war ravaged land.
The Blade of Arah grants Dust exceptional fighting skills while Fidget follows him around supporting him by being able to fire projectiles at enemies at his command. Though there are only a handful of combos, Dust is able to rapidly swing his sword on the ground which aggravates Fidget’s projectiles and causes them to do more AoE damage. The combat system is actually rather weak and gets quite repetitive. There also seems to be a pause in Dust’s movements between each combo which makes killing waves of enemies less fluid and not as satisfying.
The difficulty in Dust’s combat, however, doesn’t rely on how well you can do each combo but how well you can parry and dodge. During the early chapters, enemies don’t pose as much threat – I opted to level Dust as a high damage, low HP character which enabled me to blast through enemies really quickly as long as I don’t get hit. Regardless of the build I chose, however, the boss fights were tediously straight-forward and didn’t require much of a strategy to beat.
As the game progresses, it starts to feel like it has somewhat of a survival aspect seeing as the only way to regenerate HP is to either buy and consume food or acquire an item that provides passive HP regen which won’t be available until you’re halfway through the game. This makes treading carefully through levels inherent to your survival because save points and shops are quite sparse and scattered.
Exploration works a lot like classic Metroidvania titles but more constricted in the sense that the game won’t let you wander off into an area you’re not ready for yet. Each place has tons of secret areas with chests containing money and special items but many of them may only be reached when you’ve progressed to a certain point in the game.
The only issue I have with exploration is the map system which does the job but could stand to be more specific. It is a 2D game but in the sense that each area in a level is divided between “rooms”. The local map only shows how many rooms there are in each area and if they connect to multiple other rooms. Considering Dust’s platforming feature, it gets quite confusing later on when revisiting previous levels to access secret areas. Thankfully, however, the map does tell you when there is an undiscovered treasure in the room and will mark it off as soon as it is found which saves a lot of time backtracking. The map also includes markers that will tell you if there is a save point or a store in the vicinity. Though this can arguably make the game less difficult, it depends whether you like this sort of thing or not. Personally, I’m a huge fan of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and that game only marked out save and teleport points – everything else, I had to remember which was part of the fun. However, due to the convenient markers, less time is spent backtracking and in turn, less time is spent grinding.
Each level is beautifully designed and vibrant, full of different kinds of creatures to slash through. The world map offers several places to explore, each with a unique theme and atmosphere. There is not one room in each of these maps that looks the same with all of them varying in the balance between combat and platforming. Personally, the american anime art style doesn’t really appeal to me but Dust is just so visually appealing with smooth animations that it’s so hard to overlook the fact that this stunning and memorable world was solely created by one man.
Despite some combat and navigation issues, Dust‘s value comes in its mode of storytelling and its atmosphere. Though the characters often seem transparent and stereotypical, it adds to the overall appeal of Dust in that it all just seems so pleasantly familiar and cheesy. However, that’s not to say that the dialogue isn’t entertaining. Fidget, for example, seemed really annoying at first, especially when she would blatantly offer tutorials that would break the fourth wall. Normally, when video games acknowledge game mechanics from the perspective of the player, it breaks immersion and dulls the experience. Fidget’s comments, however, are hilarious because they poke fun at familiar RPG aspects that are often overlooked such as putting a whole sheep in your inventory.
It is really apparent that Dodrill derived plenty of influence from classic titles, especially Castlevania: Symphony of the Night - when walls are broken in Dust, an HP item drops called “mysterious wall chicken.” I found Dust increasingly nostalgic – from its crude inventory system to the quirky menu sounds and even the fact that the game tracks its completion by a percentage.
The plot is imbued with issues surrounding the blur between good and evil in a time of war. Seemingly cliche – an amnesiac warrior finds himself in the wake of global conflict – Dust effectively delivers a memorable story through a well-paced narrative. The NPCs are often stereotypical and I say this because I came across an elitist, cigarette-smoking Frenchman with a moustache and a crotchety old mushroom farmer who wanted me to “fetch his hittin’ stick.” However, that is not to say that the NPCs don’t offer interesting insight on the war that has ravaged the land. You can interact with every NPC you come across and each of them will deliver a unique take on the situation and may give you a side-quest that won’t necessarily benefit you in any way but are only there to make fictional world of Dust seem alive and breathing.
Plenty of Dust: An Elysian Tail‘s flaws may be attributed to the fact that most of it was developed by one man. Despite some issues with game mechanics, Dust is the definition of a good action RPG and is definitely one of the best I’ve seen since Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.