Dust: An Elysian Tale Review
Made2Game Dust: An Elysian Tale review score: 9/10
Format: Xbox 360
Reviewer: James Bowden
Developer: Humble Hearts
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Lessons, you've got to pay attention while they're there else you might regret it later on in life. Sure, daydreaming about Skyfall (Dang that trailer's good isn't it? That kid's actually alright as Q and that theme? My word... Oop, there I go again) is fun now but in five years time, when you've got to make that decision, it might have been the listening today that could have helped you.
Dust: An Elysian Tale is a lesson. It's narrative? I guess that's where the lessons normally lie and yeah, sure, there's message and meaning to draw from this sidescrolling hack and slash's words. It may star a mysterious stranger suffering from amnesia alongside an largely irritating, sometimes amusing flying rat in a world populated by walking talking animal men but Dust: An Elysian Tale manages to tell a compelling, thoughtful tale without the usual side order of pretension or convolution that drips off Indie games of this ilk.
No, Dust's lessons come two fold and they're both incredibly import design lessons.
And one is not about how gorgeous the world looks. Despite some gangly animation hangovers from the game's clear origins as a flash project, Dust: An Elysian Tale sports sprite and environmental visual beauties to effortlessly hangs with the best of them, and it even knows how to use the camera to frame them exquisitely.
On higher difficulties larger foes will smush you in one hit, and rightly so.
Honestly, if you're just after eye massaging beauty then Dust is 1200 Microsoft points well spent.
But no, it's looks are not a lesson (unless you're an artist, natch). Nor is it the game's soundtrack which, in truth, is arguably its weakest aspect. Serviceable but never outstanding, thinking back to my time with Dust I find it hard to really remember any of its music which, in my eyes, is a bad thing. It all fit, but while my eyes basked in visual splendour my ears felt a little like the silver medalists.
And that, my friend, leads us to our first lesson. The music in Dust: An Elysian Tale is the only aspect not created primarily by Dean Dodrill. The rest of the game, from art to combat mechanics to pacing, is all the primary work of said Mr. Dodrill.
And that makes Dust: An Elysian Tale incredibly humbling and fascinating to play. Every aspect of it feels exactly as it was intended – there's hardly anything here to sully the waters. All the sidequests feel meaningful, the dialogue is strong, the length of quests spot on, it's at times heartwarming and at others quite thoughtful. What we have here is the product of artistic vision left alone to flourish without needless alteration or additions due to 'market research'. Dust is a game made by a team of few that far outshines those made by bloated teams of many.
Dust's use of sun shafts, spots, and ambient lighting occasionally lends the visuals an ethereal beauty
This quality is extrapolated through what Dust: An Elysian tale doesn't do just as much as what it does. Combat, for example, comes largely from the Dishwasher: Dead Samurai school of flashy and brash (indeed James Silva, creator of Dead Samurai, gets a nod in the credits) but it's interestingly curtailed. Where games of this ilk normally bloat themselves up with more combos than the USA has Olympic medals, Dust has one weapon and a handful of attacks. The difference is, you'll use all of Dust's attacks to launch foes into the air, slice through them like a whirlwind, dodge blows in the nick of time and shower the nasties in fire. You'll never want for more, and by keeping your slashing basic it brings the attack, dodge, counter right to the forefront.
Dust's combat is exhilarating and remarkably, considering how much blade fodder you'll be carving through, never boring. When bigger games can't craft combat schemes that even work on a the basic principles of being satisfying, Dust's combat really is a master-class in tight, focused and entertaining design.
Yet Dust can be equally mysterious and coy when it wants to be. Finding notes around the world often hints to hidden treasure or some such goodies – the game lets you backtrack around its world with new abilities though that aspect is completely optional – but the joy here is that they're frequently cryptic. Dodrill says 'the player will figure it out' and leaves clues in the environment, and in collectables, and he leaves hidden dialogue to embellish minor characters for players because he knows they might, on the off chance, talk to them after doing something else. Ultimately, it's nice to be trusted.
Locales are varied too, with some rather interesting enemy designs popping up
Dust: An Elysian Tale is beautiful, yes, and it plays brilliantly but these are only its obvious merits. Dust is the sort of game that reminds you of how a game's balance should be - it's big in its story, its characters, its world and in its surprises for the inquisitive player, and when it comes to the brawling its tightly focused so as not to overwhelm and confuse. Sure there's loot to find but there's no labourious skill unlocking, no unnecessary plot fluff, no pointless weapons or combos, no stupidly over-powered bosses.
Dust reminds you what a game can be when its the focused vision of a few rather than the unnecessarily bloated product of many. It's not going to challenge your perceptions of games like Journey, and it's not going to astound with new ideas and innovative features, but Dust: An Elysian Tale is still an intimately designed masterclass with a lot to teach and remind modern gamers about what helps make a great game. So play it and please, please, please listen. And don't think about James Bond. It's important.
Words by James Bowden (Twitter: @Dalagonash)