It’s been a long time since I was last fully enthralled by a video game. It seems that as time and technology progresses, games have become more photorealistic and yet so very lifeless and unmoving. Fortunately, not every modern offering suffers from such humdrum, and indie game Dust: An Elysian Tail is the shining example that I’ve been looking for.
Dust is an incredibly unique game in so many ways—so much so that it will be difficult to fully explain while maintaining the brevity of a game review. Three and a half years in the making, I have been anxiously following its development since I caught wind of it back in 2009. It was then when its sole developer, professional animator and illustrator Dean “Noogy” Dodrill, gained notoriety by earning $40,000 in Microsoft’s Dream.Build.Play competition with this early yet promising prototype, a move that would eventually secure his project as an official Xbox Live Arcade game.
Working as a homage to the action/adventure titles of yore, Dust brings back all the magic and exploration of titles such as Metroid and Castlevania (there’s even a reference to Castlevania’s mysterious and health-restoring “Wall Chickens”), while integrating a battle system reminiscent of Maui Mallard in Cold Shadow (SNES) and the more modern Muramasa: The Demon Blade (Wii). You play as Dust, an amnesia-stricken anthropomorphic wolf-like swordsman. Together with the talking Blade of Ahrah and equally mouthy flying cat-like Fidget, you embark on a grand quest of self-discovery and redemption.
The game plays very smooth, especially for an indie title. Combat is fast and fluid, allowing Dust to leap and practically fly about the screen to rack up preposterously high combos. At the same time, Fidget acts as your backup mage, allowing you to cast projectiles that Dust can manipulate and amplify to easily fill the screen with magical death. Your only limit is what amounts to a quickly recharging cool-down meter, allowing you to lay waste without worrying about replenishing Mana or MP bars. This all allows for a very fun yet balanced play style that I really enjoyed.
There’s also plenty to do in the game. Villagers will send you on quests that reward with XP and loot. New abilities are unlocked as you progress, which allows optional back-tracking to find hidden areas with your new-found skills, in the style of Metroid. There are even a series of bonus obstacle courses, complete with scoring for Xbox Leaderboards. And for the completionists, each area tracks the percentage of treasures found, allowing for a 100% completion game—something I personally accomplished after twenty hours of game time.
Dean’s abilities as an animator and illustrator are showcased well in Dust. From the gloriously fluid character animations to the backgrounds filled with swaying trees and ever-changing weather effects, every single scene is breathtaking and comes to life with rich colors and attention to detail. Populated with enjoyable and fully voice-acted animal characters, the game feels more like an interactive Don Bluth film, such as the classics An American Tail or The Secret of NIMH.
Another surprise the game delivered on was its music, voice talent, and sound effects. The music by HyperDuck SoundWorks was some of the best I’ve heard in an indie game, rivaling that of Danny B (Super Meat Boy) and Magnus “SoulEye” Pålsson (VVVVVV). The official soundtrack is currently being mastered with about 47 tracks, and will be available soon. The sound effects were crisp and appropriate, and the voice acting was surprisingly good. I was unsure of the voices at first, but characters such as Fidget began to grow on me as I got to know them—especially with her frequent breaking of the fourth wall, such as screaming to mash the attack buttons, or reminding you to save before proceeding.
While Dust is a fantastic game, it certainly has a few downfalls. Perhaps my biggest complaint is rather unfair: I ended up wanting more. More variety, more characters, more dungeons, more abilities. There are also times when platform-jumping was overly tricky—while thankfully there were no “bottomless pits”, a misstep or taking damage often plummets you to the bottom of a mountain. There were also a variety of minor though forgivable bugs, such as background music abruptly cutting in and out when shopping. Finally, the story—while appropriate for an action title—was cliché-laden and formulaic.
Finally, I wanted to touch on the game’s development. This is where the Elysian Tail project truly shines, and warrants critical acclaim. For the most part, Dean Dodrill was a one-man army throughout the entire project, taking the term “independent developer” to a new level. Apart from the music, voice acting, some storywriting, and miscellaneous tasks, Dean did everything. The concept, art, sprites, animation, backgrounds, combat system, programming, cutscenes, Xbox LIVE integration… it all was done by an animator with relatively little programming experience. Truly a labor of love and proof that aspiring indie developers can make dreams happen, Dean performed the impossible and brought forth an experience beyond even my own expectations.
I cannot recommend Dust enough, especially to classic action/adventure fans. If you have access to an Xbox 360, I implore you to download the game’s demo and give it a try. If you like it, support Dean and own this indie gaming success story for a mere 1200 MS Points (roughly $15).