For your enjoyment: my full review of the 2D metroidvania combat title: Dust: An Elysian Tail.
I’m baring my soul a bit for this one and I hope that it works for this review. In some ways, this is a bit of a thank you letter to the developer Humble Hearts but I think I did my best effort to bring this review to publish.
A Paladin’s Review: Dust: An Elysian Tail. A Beautiful Gem That Revitalized My Love of Gaming.
- Genre: 2D Sidescrolling Metroidvania with Light RPG elements
- Developed and Published by: Humble Hearts LLC & Microsoft Studios.
- Platform: Windows, Mac & Linux plus Xbox 360 and iOS.
- Business Model: Base Game
- Copy purchased by myself.
Preamble and Full Disclosure
It’s interesting, the twists and turns life can take you through. Turns that you can only appreciate with hindsight. I owe Dust so much more than I realized until I did this review and I want to talk about that for a little bit if you don’t mind. On January 1st, 2013, I lost my father to a sudden and deadly heart attack. I had just returned to college that day and it was a shock to everyone that knew him. After returning from the funeral, I sought to move on with my life. However, my college work suffered, this blog had lost a lot of momentum and my depression had gotten worse. My love of videogames had been on unstable ground before my Dad died and his death caused it to shatter. I don’t think it had helped that I was playing Darksiders when I got the call. A game that I never finished and may never return to. Which I realize is completely unfair but that’s how it is.
On May 24th, 2013, Dust: An Elysian Tail was ported and released to PC. The next day, my 24th birthday coincidentally, TotalBiscuit published his impressions of it. I was still following him during that time and what I saw stirred interest in me. Despite being on a college budget and most definitely not supposed to be buying games, I bought Dust the very next day at full price. Which, granted, was only $13.49. But hey, when you’re on a budget, that feels like a lot of money. I played Dust: An Elysian Tail to completion, loving every minute of it. It would rekindle my love of this hobby and eventually lead to the rebooting of this website. For that, I owe Dust a lot more than just money, but my gratitude as well.
There are a lot of reasons I still love this game despite its imperfections. Dust is a conflicted character who’s trying to do the right thing while figuring out who he really is. That speaks to me. I mean, my avatar is a Paladin. I don’t think I need to elaborate. The sheer honest intent I feel from this game when playing and the labor of love that it represents is impossible to ignore. Dust: An Elysian Tail may not be a perfect game. But it was the perfect game for me at that moment in time. For someone who was in desperate need of a reason to love gaming again, Dust was that reason. As sappy as that may sound, it’s why I have a lot of fond memories of this title. So, I’ve returned a couple of years after the fact to give Dust: An Elysian Tail the proper review it deserves. A journey that I’m glad to be taking. I’ve discussed all of the above to give you an idea of why I love this game so that you understand where I’ve coming from. I hope that this review will still be as solid as ever. Bringing with it my usual ability to dissect and point out the flaws and good parts Dust: An Elysian Tail has. So, without further ado, let’s talk about the game.
Overall Gameplay Thoughts
Dust is a 2D metroidvania and RPG light game that focuses on combat, questing and character interactions along with some exploration and backtracking. Dust’s only weapon throughout the entire game is a one handed sword and a special ability called Dust storm. It’s a fairly long game ranging about 15 hours in length. Set in the fantasy world of Falana, Dust is awakened by the presence of Ahrah a talking sword that sets him on his quest to figure out who or what he is. All the while, Dust must discover new powers and abilities to traverse the 2D landscape. There is some backtracking when you discover new equipment and special abilities that assist in reaching new areas otherwise previously locked off. What you will find in these secret areas are keys (used for chests), chests, cages or other items of importance. This metroidvania is combined with a light-RPG system that lets you level up attributes with experience and equip gear to become a more powerful warrior. There’s also a somewhat extensive amount of conversations to be had with the denizens of the land.
Combat System Thoughts
Dust features a lively aerial sword combat throughout the game. The combat system in Dust is extremely responsive and a real treat to experience. Dust has sword strike attacks, dodges and parry counter attacks in addition to a special ability. The main idea is to keep Dust’s hit chain, by striking an enemy as many times as possible, in order to increase his experience and damage. The aforementioned special ability is called Dust Storm. You will be using this ability a lot but it’s a whole lot of fun. It’s where Dust stands still on the ground (or runs around in the air) swinging his sword in a all directions. When combined with Fidget’s projectile attack, an ability that consumes your energy meter, you can pull off some impressive magical combos that will heavily damage all enemies in an area. Fidget only gains three different types of projectile attacks, each with their own particular strengths and weaknesses. Combined with some combo attacks that fling enemies into the air, Dust has a very fluid and dynamic aerial combat that is just really enjoyable. Oh and the energy system (which is also used for dodging) is regenerated by subsequent successful attacks and a high hit chain.
There’s a wide variety of enemies, mini-bosses and bosses. Each with their own set of moves and special abilities. The AIs on each individual enemy isn’t the smartest and is rather predictable. Smaller enemies will try to dodge out of the way of sword swings and then poke at you if they can. Some will dodge behind you to try and backstab. Bigger mini-bosses will generally have enough health to simply keep using their predictable move set over and over again. Bosses do generally have pretty good AIs though they won’t try and adapt to your attacks. There’s a good amount of flying and ground-based enemies. Some will explode, some will poison and other status effects to keep things interesting. Though you will eventually level up to the point that a lot of the older enemies on previous levels are easy to one hit kill. But for the most part, they have enough variety to keep things interesting.
Some of the issues I have with the combat system are pretty minor. There’s only a small amount of advanced combo moves in Dust. So, towards the late game, the moves can start feeling overly repetitive. I think the main reason why is that Dust expects you to fight in the air and get a ton of hit chain points. However, I still would have preferred some additional challenging ground-based combos to keep things interesting. It will try and vary it up with some additional tactical enemies that can explode, camouflage themselves or try to counter parry and then retaliate. Still, I would have liked some more additional challenging combos to keep things interesting throughout the game. Additionally, I found that boss fights were just a little bit too easy even on “Tough” difficulty. (Though that can’t be said for hardcore. Hardcore difficulty isn’t messing around). Boss fights are a little too easy to just spam Dust Storm and wear them down while avoiding their attacks from afar. While you do have to get the occasional sword strike in to increase the energy meter for these attacks, I felt like it regenerated a little too quickly. It’s also possible that I’m a little too good at this game.
I’m not a big fan of the healing system in Dust. It works and certainly assists in keeping fights tense. But, I didn’t like the constant need to keep eating food (potions) all the time just to keep my health up. This would often lead to spamming the button because some foods recovered so little health but were often all I had. There’s no way to recover health outside of food and save fountains (unless you’re at a high level of difficulty which removes the healing from save fountains). It was just a constant chore of constantly buying and using food to keep my health going, especially in the late game. There are revive stones that can be used in the middle of combat to give Dust another life which are useful. Outside of that, prepare to feed Dust an all-you-can-eat-buffet to keep him alive. Good thing he’s fighting so many monsters to burn all those calories.
Dust gains experience by completing quests and killing monsters in his travels. Killing monsters not only gives Dust experience but gold, crafting materials and sometimes equipment drops or crafting recipes as well. That experience can be used to increase his level, giving him points to spend on increasing his attributes’ numbers. Said attributes are: maximum health available, the amount of base damage he does, the base defense which reduces the amount of damage he takes and Fidget, which increases the power of her magic. While they are noticeable improvements, especially at first, there isn’t a lot of depth to this system. You’ll just increase the stat(s) you consider most important. Though personally, I would focus on maximum health and Fidget, as her dust storm ability is incredibly potent. These stats can also be improved by the gear you can equip.
Crafting & Market System
There are five inventory slots which are used to equip certain types of gear: armor, augments, two rings and a pendant. Armor will generally increase defense, luck or regen stat. Augments increase both Dust’s and Fidget’s damage output. Rings and pendants can either supercharge a few stats or gradually increase all of Dust’s stats. Most of the time, new equipment will be good upgrades though there are some that are situationally interesting. There is a crafting system where materials are gathered and then, with the blueprint in hand, taken to the forge at the top of Archer’s Pass. I found that I didn’t use it all that often. Usually the gear dropping from slain creatures was better and less of a hassle to obtain. Especially since crafting required I go to a specific place that is slightly out of the way and inconvenient to get to. The game does have the good humor to point this out but it’s still inconvenient.
The shopkeeper that shows up in various locations around the levels of the game is a little bit better. If you’re not able to find the drops you need or are in need of certain foods (which is this game’s version of potions), it’s something you’ll end up using quite a bit. Most food will just help Dust recover his health though there are some that will cure him of poison, burns and other afflictions. For the most part, food is the main reason you’ll end up seeing the shopkeeper. Mostly because the crafting system isn’t as important as I think the developer had hoped. That or maybe the crafting system was simply another way for the player to get around a bad RNG system.
Featuring a cast of anthropomorphic creatures, Dust has a fairly rich range of them. Dust, the main protagonist, is assisted by the enigmatic sword Ahrah and the sidekick Fidget. Initially suffering from amnesia, Dust agrees to go on a journey to discover who he is and what happened to his memories. Which will eventually lead to fighting against an invading force that threatens to destroy everything in its path and protecting others from the side-effects of the war. Ahrah on the other hand is there to be…enigmatic. He won’t straight talk all that often and clearly knows more than he’s letting on. You’ll either like or dislike him, which can also be said about Fidget. The guardian of Ahrah, this high-pitched sidekick promises to be either endearing or annoying to most players. I personally found her endearing with the jokes, references and fourth-wall breaking along with her steadfast friendship with Dust. I can understand though if many won’t find her so amusing.
I’m not going to spoil the story or talk about it in length. I feel like this is something you should experience for yourself. What I will say about it, is that it’s a relatively straightforward campaign. The entire time will be spent on the mystery of the invaders, what Dust is about and the eventual saving of the land. In between all of that, there’s a colorful and endearing cast of characters to keep things interesting.
I do want to talk about General Gaius, the main antagonist, a little bit. For a game that could easily have been black and white, he’s surprisingly different. He doesn’t exhibit any of the traits that you would normally expect from an “evil” general. He’s not some mustache-twirling jerk. He shows compassion and genuine concern when he’s eventually confronted by Dust. There’s a benevolence and self-confidence to him that belies his position and his actions. He strikes me as a person that truly believes what he is doing is the right thing. Kudos to the developer on this one. It was great to fight an enemy that wasn’t just “evil” for the sake of being evil.
PC Settings & Audio/Video
Dust has one of the best customizable settings option menus I’ve seen for a 2D metroidvania. This is the standard all developers should meet when publishing a PC game, especially when porting from consoles. You’ve got all the choices necessary for resolution options. Full-screen is on/off. It would have been nice to see a fullscreen windowed mode but oh well. It does allow for up to 120FPS though you’ll have to disable the in-game V-Sync and force it outside the game. Depth of field, post processing (bloom, motion blur and shader effects) and weather effects can be turned on or off to improve performance. Anti-aliasing settings can’t be messed with but whatever default is being implemented, it works well. There’s variable refresh on/off otherwise known as v-sync. The character portrait quality (when conversing with people) can be set to normal or high. The HUD can also be adjusted to suit your needs and there’s even a color blind mode. Dust works optimally with a controller (whose vibration can be turned off) but you can get by with mouse and keyboard. Mouse and keyboard can have their keys rebound. As far as performance is concerned, Dust is rock solid and I haven’t had any bugs or crashing problems.
It even features multiple ways to make the game easier. There’s auto-heal and auto fire settings in the options menu and a couple of rather easy difficulty settings for those interested in just enjoying the story. If there was one particular thing I have to note: Dust is just a bit too easy up until the Hard or Hardcore difficulty settings. For most experienced metroidvania players who want a challenging campaign, set the difficulty to tough or you’ll just breeze right through. Hardcore isn’t messing around though, with enemies able to severe amounts of damage on Dust if they get a lucky strike in.
Dust has an excellent soundtrack by Hyperduck Soundworks. I continually relisten to it over and over again and it still rates as one of my favorite game soundtracks. It features an instrumental/orchestral collection of tracks that range from calm and thoughtful up to powerful and epic. I get emotional every time I hear it again. I would recommend picking it up on their Bandcamp page. Visually, Dust features an excellent animated style in the same vein as Disney classics of old, with a cast of anthropomorphic characters in a far flung fantasy land. With a rich and fluid animation style, Dust comes alive. To the point that even the cutscenes look slightly worse than the game itself, funnily enough. There’s a whole host of different creatures and locations to be seen and experienced. It doesn’t cut any corners, allowing it impress the entire time.
Dust: An Elysian Tail is a beautiful gem of a game even if it isn’t a perfect one. It’s a labor of love done almost entirely by a single developer that, frankly, should be the standard of quality all one-man developer teams should shoot for. It’s imperfections are minor ones between some of the characters being potentially annoying for some (Fidget most notably), the combat system is sometimes a little bit too easy even on hard settings and the crafting system often feeling pointless. Still, I feel like these are minor quibbles. Dust will forever hold a special place for me for revitalizing my love of gaming. Its highly responsive combat system, beautifully crafted visuals, enjoyable storyline and memorable characters sealed its award as my game of the year in 2013. Kudos that I continue to support to this day. Thank you Humble Hearts.
Thanks as always for reading!