Okay, so I’m a little late to the table with my review of this charming, nostalgic sidescroller. I say ‘nostalgic’ because it really takes me back to my gaming roots, but for all of its hat tips and winks to the games of my childhood, it certainly doesn’t seem dated. Dust: An Elysian Tale is an impassioned, hand-penned love letter to fans of the Castlevania or Metroid sub-genres, and is a perfect example of where gaming could have gone had 3D visuals not completely taken over. I’ve always been a firm believer that 2D gaming never quite finished its time in the sun, and I’ve rejoiced at games such Shadow Complex and their loyalty to the genre and mastery of it. Thankfully, the Xbox Live Arcade is a veritable treasure trove of such examples, and Dust stands head and shoulders above many AAA titles that I’ve played recently. It’s also worth mentioning that Dust was hand drawn and animated by Dean Dodrill, a lone game developer with a big heart by the looks of things. Sometimes if you want something doing right, you have to do it yourself.
We begin as Dust, a character shrouded in mystery from the outset. He’s lost his memory, has awoken in a glade in the colourful land of Falana, and has only a sentient sword, the Blade of Ahrah, and a faithful guardian Nimbat named Fidget for company. The plot is relatively well-worn and won’t boggle the mind too much, but its execution is intelligent and thoughtful. There are characters spread all across the land of Falana who are all superbly voice acted, and even the most impatient gamers who would usually button mash to speed through dialogue would be happy to sit back and hear them out.
These NPC’s are largely centred around villages – safe havens where Dust can shop for healing items and pick up sidequests for more experience. These sidequests are standard fare for the genre – ‘Go to X and retrieve Y for so-and-so’ – but they’re a pleasure to carry out and a great excuse to do some more exploring. Staying true to the Metroidvania feel there are areas which Dust will encounter throughout his journey which he cannot yet reach – he’ll pick up new abilities at points throughout the main quest which will allow him to climb, slide and reach these areas which previously had you scratching your head.
The map system also encourages exploration. There are two maps in Dust - one which focuses on the area your’re in and a world map which tells you how much of each village you’ve explored and whether or not you’ve gotten all the treasure there. This will tickle the completionist in you and have you flitting from village to village with your new abilities to get to those areas you previously couldn’t access. The on-screen HUD map reminds me of the one used by Shadow Complex a lot. It’s a traditional side-scrolling map where ‘blocks’ represent areas or rooms, similar to that of Castlevania, but with a very useful legend system which keeps things seamless. If a block is shaded blue it means there’s a save point in there somewhere, if it’s coloured green then you’ll find a shop, and if there’s a circle it means there’s still treasure there to plunder (which you may have to come back for once you learn to climb or slide).
For me, the exploration is where most of my enjoyment comes from, but the combat is really something worth shouting about too. It’s rich and colourful, and manages to seem both effortless and complex in equal measure. You’ll learn moves which throw your enemies up into the sky, which knock them across the screen, and Fidget even has some ranged skills which you can really take advantage of when it comes to combos. Each enemy kill offers up exp and loot, and each new level you reach allows you to spend a skill point in either attack, defense, health, or upping Fidget’s attack power. It’s deliciously simple yet satisfyingly intuitive. Combat is made more interesting by the various things you can equip – rings which increase item drop rates and pendants which up your resistance to poison or sleep – and you’ll eventually stumble upon a blacksmith who can make use of all of those mysterious blueprints you’ve been picking up, although you’ll need to farm the right materials first.
Dust: An Elysian Tale is a game with heart and soul, and it’s hard to believe that it’s the product of just one man’s hard work. Voice acting and soundtrack aside (which is also superb), Dodrill created everything from scratch, and the love he has for it pours off the screen. It’s not without its weaknesses, but the quick boss fights and arguably weak RPG elements can easily be overlooked in the company of such immaculate design and seamless gameplay. Perhaps more important to me though, is the way Dust stands boldly as symbol of what can be accomplished in gaming with a little inspiration and a lot of hard work. It’s one of those games that has simply cemented my love of gaming – a triumph of imagination.
You can download Dust: An Elysian Tale for free at the moment if you’re an Xbox Live Gold subscriber, but even if you miss the boat it’s certainly worth opening your wallet for. Feel free to share your experiences below, I’d love to know your thoughts! In the meantime, here’s a trailer to whet you’re appetite…