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Dust: An Elysian Tail review - A classic formula revisited

Every so often, a game comes along that reminds me why I play games. They aren't always perfect, but they're memorable experiences and that's what really matters. Dust: An Elysian Tail is one of those games. It certainly has its flaws, but when you get past all that you're left with a beautiful, quirky tale of self-discovery that still manages to be engaging and consistently surprising throughout.

Gallery: Dust: An Elysian Tail (8/18/2012) | 6 Photos

Dust: An Elysian Tail is a platforming and adventure game in the vein of Castlevania and Metroid. It follows the story of the mysterious Dust, an amnesiac warrior awakened in the forest by Fidget, a talking flying cat, and The Blade of Ahrah, a talking magical sword. Dust doesn't know how he got there, or much about his life before waking, but he is determined to find out. It isn't long before Dust has to put Ahrah to use against a group of monsters attacking the local village, and he soon learns that he possesses more abilities than he realizes.

Using Fidget's weak projectiles in conjunction with Dust's spinning sword, for example, results in a fury of projectile fire that's sure to hit every foe on screen, making it much easier to control the battlefield and keep your enemies at bay. You'll soon encounter enemies that are resistant to certain types of attacks, but that isn't much of an issue as you'll find attack combinations to break their defenses. It's a simple system that manages to build upon itself without becoming overbearing, and that's what makes it so strong.

There's a huge reliance on using the game's over-the-top combo system. Every hit counts, whether with the sword or projectiles, and they all add up toward your constant combo meter. It doesn't do much beyond making you feel like the ultimate warrior, but it's cool to see your combos adding up, and it wasn't uncommon for me to chain together a thousand hits. The system adds to the overall fluidity of combat and helps pull it all together.

Dust gains new abilities that encourage backtracking, but there's little reason for doing so – though you'll have to retread certain areas in the normal course of gameplay. I found myself trying to explore every cavern in hopes that there might be something special waiting for me. The only reward, unfortunately, was the opportunity to see more (admittedly beautiful) scenery. The lack of rewarding exploration is puzzling, especially given Dust's platform-adventure leanings.

As you progress through each area, you'll encounter many different types of enemies, each granting Dust experience upon defeat. As you gain experience and level up, you'll be able to upgrade Dust's abilities (health, attack, defense, and Fidget) helping to increase your chances against stronger foes. It an extremely basic system, but it still allows a degree of flexibility and personalization. You may be tempted to skip risky confrontations, but you'll need all the experience you can get. Without it you won't be prepared for new regions, which are populated with more difficult enemies.

In Dust, it's much better not to rush, to take things slowly and do them right, because you'll only have to do it over again if you fail. That goes for platforming as well as combat, which is unfortunate – platforming can be difficult in places where it shouldn't be. There are more than a few spots where I found myself attempting a simple jump, only to fall three stories and spend five minutes climbing my way back up. It's not a control issue, it's just easy for Dust to get caught on the environment and miss a jump. It's extremely frustrating and often feels unfair.

Though it can occasionally be difficult to navigate, the world of Dust itself is exceptionally beautiful. It's filled with unique inhabitants and environments, from mountainous areas crawling with wolves to the underworlds, which are home to strange potato-like creatures with strong accents and a talent for farming. The variation between locales is something that really sells the world of Dust. It's more than just a big map – it's a lively world.

Beyond the beautiful, hand-painted 2D environments, there's a lovable cast of characters that make every conversation and encounter memorable. For example, Fidget constantly shatters the fourth wall with one-liners like, "Ah, Monsters! Mash the buttons or something!" It was a bit off-putting at first, but it quickly became one of my favorite parts of Dust. The characters were extremely relatable, and I quickly fell in love with them.
Their positive and joyful attitudes really brightened up the mood of a disastrous, though redemptive tale that had me engulfed until the climactic – and difficult to the point of being broken – final battle. Despite this, the game is still marred with technical flaws that soured the experience, including frame rate issues, sound problems and enemies getting caught on geometry. A corrupted save issue required me to fall back on a previous manual save (losing hours of progress in the process), and I even encountered the occasional system hardlock, once requiring me to delete and redownload the game. I can only hope that these frustrating technical issues can be sorted out in a patch, but as it stands they manage to blemish a brilliant game that focuses as much on character development as it does gameplay.

The experience is hindered somewhat by mediocre exploration, but the rest of Dust – the combat and the surprisingly wonderful story – is strong enough that the experience isn't diminished as a whole. Dust: An Elysian Tail doesn't do much to innovate the platform-adventure sub-genre, but it does manage to look and play beautifully throughout, and sometimes that's enough.

Editor's note: The initial review inaccurately stated that item crafting requires a great deal of backtracking. The paragraph in question has been removed.

This review is based on the final version of Dust: An Elysian Tail for Xbox Live Arcade, provided by Microsoft.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

Alex Rubens is a freelance writer based in Seattle, Washington whose work can be found at G4, PC World, and Complex Magazine, among others. Talk to him about Star Wars on Twitter at @alexrubens, he loves it.

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