May 28, 2015

That's A Wrap: Dust: An Elysian Tail

warning: may contain spoilers

Well, it only took me about three years, but I've finally finished Dust: An Elysian Tail.
Dust is an old fashioned, side scrolling, action platformer originally released digitally in 2012 for Xbox Live Arcade. It became infamous in the gaming community due to it coming together largely under the power of a single man, developer Dean Dodrill.

Upon playing the demo, I'd decided this was among the most beautiful games I've ever seen, and it was super fun, too! I was drawn in by the simplicity of the gameplay, but with challenge options, a fair learning curve and interesting aspects. Also it's pretty. Seriously. Holy crap.

This game is facking gorgeous. The meticulous backgrounds are all hand painted and the characters are depicted via a unique drawing style, in which everyone appears to be some form of rabbit. The two melt together seamlessly and the quality of the art never waivers. The lighting and other visual effects really stand out with this style, and amplify the game's beauty even more. Additionally, there are a few FMVs to articulate major plot movements, which oddly detracts from the game's standard a bit, but FMVs are always welcome in video games. It's truly impressive that one guy illustrated, animated and programmed this all by himself.

But the visuals aren't the only outstanding feature in Dust. The soundtrack is pretty prominent, too. The music starts off very subtle but evolves into a rather beautifully crafted - albeit it a little too intense at times - score. The music is mostly made up of high-frequency, quick-paced pieces that often make the situation seem much more dire than it is. That said, there is a particular section of the game that carries a very obvious horror-influenced theme, and with the soundtrack, succeeds in scaring me more than most dedicated genre titles do. The sound effects are rather epic, too. They sometimes remind me of a fighting game, the way they all stand out in a "punchy" way. The game features voice acting as well, which, while appropriate, is pretty annoying. It's a little amateur, but it does grow on you in time. If nothing else the cast succeeded in proving their character's personalities, and are consistent throughout the game.

Dust begins as our anthropomorphic hero awakes to a random-ass, talking sword showing up and addressing your character as "Dust". It seems Mr. Dust has no idea who, what, or where he is, so he begins prying the sword and its obnoxious chaperone, Fidget, for answers. The sword suggests you head east to a nearby village and sort yourself out there. You learn much about the current war, endangered races and misguided heroes, but little about yourself. Of course in time you learn that all of these things relate directly to you.
The game sports a great deal of unexpected, well written humor. Anyone who shares my sense of humor will find themselves having more than one giggle throughout their play, usually at the hands of Fidget. The plot, in all, is really quite impressive, in that it's unpredictable, surprisingly deep, and yet simple enough for you to comprehend from a single bout. This balance of comedy and drama is masterful for such a short, playful, indie game. I commend it for this.

The main cast of the game consists of, of course, Dust: our mysterious protagonist who may or may not be totally evil. His involvement (beside being the brute strength) is pretty focused on the "discovering who you are" motif, but he demonstrates the ability to mediate difficult situations and sway towards a comical or serious nature when necessary. One of the best parts of the game, says I, is when you meet Haley and her questionable brother Matti. I could not stop laughing at this exchange.
Dust is accompanied through the entire game by the talking sword, Ahrah. Ahrah seems to have a lot of answers but refuses to tell you anything. He simply comments on your decision making and wipes out baddies for you. Ahrah comes with his own personal guardian, a nimbat called Fidget. Fidget begins as a skeptical nay-sayer but quickly grows to like Dust, going as far as providing her services in battle and helping him sort out his bipolar issues. With all her oblivious candor, Fidget is the obvious comic relief in this title, at times nearly breaking the fourth wall, such as pointing out how incredibly awkward it is that Dust can fit an entire sheep in his… bag? and suggesting the importance of frequent saves.
This is the trio that you'll spend all of your time with, but there are a number of notable NPCs, too. Early in the game, you'll meet Ginger. She's the sole survivor of the recent attack on a nearby mountain town, and ends up providing a great deal of plot information regarding the war and its instigator - and your top enemy - General Gaius. You'll also run into Avgustin a curious amount of times… could he be important? Towards the end of the game you side with another strange fellow, Elder Gray Eyes, who is the leader of the Moonbloods. There are numerous others with their own short stories, most of whom will offer you sidequests as well. As mentioned you can also seek out Haley and Matti, who serve as the game's blacksmiths, but more on that later.

Due to its retro influence, playing Dust is simultaneously simple and complex.
There are five chapters, though that means very little for this title. Each new area is introduced with a short cutscene and/or title card, as are the chapters. The game controls where you go by blocking off areas that are clearly open ended. This indicates that there will be lots of backtracking and revisiting! Sometimes you'll also be barred by a red barrier. This usually goes away once you've eliminated all the enemies nearby. The map is essentially a large, irregular grid, which details anything of note within the squares you have unlocked (treasure, save monuments etc.), as well as showing you your final destination by way of a flag. When you open the full map, your treasure and map progress is also displayed. Pressing Y will bring up an additional legend so you can see exactly what's available and how far away. Occasionally you will stumble across another type of colored barrier, these are 'resonance gates', and you'll need the correct stone to pass through them. Such stones are found or given to you throughout the game (see "lots of backtracking…"). Not to fear though, sooner than later you unlock the world map and the teleport feature, making getting around much less stressful. Sometimes you'll even find a teleport sphere which will take you to a different area within the same map. A little scary at first, but you learn to trust them.
Some of the things you discover on your journey are:
Save monuments - these are curious piles of rubble that emit a blue light. Passing through them will trigger an autosave, and heal you a bit if you're below half in your health meter. You can also choose to manually save or use the teleport feature, if you have a teleport stone in your inventory. Save monuments appear with some frequency.
Chests - offer food, money, armor or blueprints, usually. Opening chests is kind of a fun mini game. You'll need to gather keys on your pilgrimage, and then seek out the chests which are often hidden or difficult to get to. You're then presented the unlocking screen, where you'll have to follow the correct prompts to successfully open the chest. I'd like to tell you what happens when you fail, but I've never actually done it. It's a pretty easy task. Sometimes you'll come across a strange looking chest, which requires 4 keys and longer a sequence to unlock. See the sidequest section for more.
Merchants - see the dodgy-looking tent with the creepy, blinking eyes? That's our guy! This is the merchant, where you can… y'know… buy and sell things. I totally want the merchant's robe. Anyway, you'll gather a hoard of useless materials in your travels, which you can then sell to the merchant who will catalog and then stock said items. These are used to forge new equipment! There is also one normal douchebag merchant in the town of Aurora, but he operates from a polished shack. Lame.

On your normal play screen, you'll see your statuses at the top-left of the screen. Your HP is indicated both by the number at the top and the green bar adjacent to it. Above the green bar is Dust's energy meter illustrated by a flowing white storm of a bar, and just left of that is a symbol indicating which of Fidget's abilities I have read to use (in this case, lightning). The bottom of this dashboard shows which item I have ready in my quick slot (birthday cake, of which I have 9), my current level (44) and my bank account. You'll also notice the blue bar, which I have to admit I'm a still a bit confused by. From what I can gather, this meter relates to Fidget. The fuller the bar, the more powerful your Dust Storm attack will be when you use Fidget's abilities. It grows and depletes at such a weird pace that I'm not 100% certain of my understanding, but full bars are always better, are they not?
To the right you'll see Dust and Fidget standing next to a save monument, which we've clearly reached by climbing the nearby vines. In the top-right, you can see a little sublet of the area's map, which indicates all the areas I've opened, as well as my flagged destination. The boarder of the grid will be incomplete if there is still an area to be unlocked.
You'll also see periodic notifications when the shop is restocked, quest log has been updated, etc. and
an inordinate amount of random rain and other environment effects which can actually impede your visual at times. A cool effect, though. During combat, your map is replaced with your hit combo, and the screen will be smattered with damage updates near your victims.
You might also come across interesting little fruits, but you don't want to eat these… they're bombfruits, and they're used to blow up walls that emit a yellow barrier light. Bombfruits often come on a timer, so you have to be quick and swift to successfully blow up your target. This adds a fun puzzle element to the game.

Once you get things going, you're offered a number of opportunities to learn more about your situation by selecting different conversation starters. You can choose to skip these, or ask them to repeat themselves if you've missed something. There isn't much consequential decision making, however.

There are very thorough tutorials and explanations when you visit any given screen for the first time, but Fidget will remind you of popular commands throughout the game. She also points out when there's treasure nearby, with her freaky, pirate "sixth sense". In addition to your normal commands and skills, you'll acquire new skills via the curious "skill balls" which teach you things required to seek out new areas and complete the game. Such skills include the underling, or the ability to slide through
small tunnels; double jump - you have no idea how happy I was to see this; boost jump, which allows you to make the best of air currents; iron grip, or the ability to climb vines; and the original Dust Storm attack, which, when paired with Fidget, is a precious commodity. You later acquire the invaluable Aerial Dust Storm upgrade, as well as upgrades for Fidget, which can turn your Dust Storm attacks into monstrous fire or lightning attacks. These, in addition to the various combos and parrying, are your main forms of combat.

For a real time combat game, battles in Dust can require a lot of patience. You get bombarded by a lot of foes and it's easy to get carried away… which usually leads to broken combos and getting hit. Consequently, battles can drag on and on as you meticulously handle each set of foes.
There are many enemies and each requires a different strategy to defeat, meaning that playing this game in close bouts is better, or you'll forget the quickest way to eliminate a screen full of foes. (The answer is usually Dust Storm, though.) They come in a number of varieties, from ordinary land crawlers to blobs, which resemble Mario's Boo, except they explode upon close proximity instead of haunting you. I think my favorite enemies might be the zombies. They have a colorful design but their actions sort of channel Silent Hill mannequins mixed with Resident Evil baddies. Kinda cool for the "horror" section of the game.
You'll be tutored on a number of combos, but lets be honest, we just mash buttons… the enemies will have a small health bar to let you know where you're at. In many cases you will have to eliminate all of them to advance. In bigger areas they may respawn after a time, but in my experience you will usually have to leave the screen and return if you want to take them on again. This makes grinding in Dust a pretty easy pill to swallow. As discussed earlier, Fidget is a commodity in combat, but she can be silenced, rendering her useless. You will also experience ailments such as poison or burning, which can be cured quickly with an item but otherwise will last a short time before you can kick it. Additionally, you can "overheat," as it were, if you're not careful in monitoring your energy meter, which depletes as you dash or use Dust Storms. Dust will slowly turn red to reflect this. Another meter concerns Fidget's strength, so you will have to be wary of that, too. You can build the meter by building combos!

To improve the odds, you'll have to level up and visit your 'character' screen…

Here you can spend your skill gems to increase your attack, defense, health or Fidget - which I recommend, F.Y.I.. Each section is powered up, one gem at a time, until you unlock the next level of the meter. This is your main source of growing your power outside of your equipment.
You can equip some armor, a weapon augment, two rings and a pendant to artificially improve your stats, as well as a quick slot healing item. These pieces contain boosts to any or all of the aforementioned attributes, as well as the occasional "regen" ability which - while a welcome asset - does make the game much easier, in the end.
You also gain small boosts by finding and freeing "friends". These are small, various creature which range from Mr. Man-type figures to mascots of other games. Finding friends is one of the major sidequests offered in the game.

Friends are found in differently-shaped chests littered throughout the world. You'll often hear the friends rattling inside their captive, and require four keys to free. Doing so rewards you with a laugh, and a small boost to your health. One such friend quest is an exciting 16-bit throwback, which was surprising and fun to experience!
Another major sidequest offered in Dust is the Cirelian Trials. I believe there are 5 or 6 in total. These are separate challenges - a sort of obstacle course - usually on a timer. You're meant to run the course and smash lanterns - for which you gain 500 points - without taking damage from the trial's many obstacles and baddies - which deducts 100 points. You're then ranked and rewarded an item, and you can compare yourself to your friends on Xbox Live!
Lastly, whenever you should cross a NPC with a leaf over their head, it indicates they have a quest for you! These usually consist of finding and delivering certain items. Busy work, but it adds a lot to the game and forces you to unlock hidden regions and explore everything.

On top of all of this, the game demands that you make your own damn stuff. After meeting Haley and Matti, you'll have access to the blacksmith component of the game. However getting to them is a bit of a pain, so it's worthwhile to complete their sidequest and find their father's transmitter, so you can order new items from anywhere in the world. To make a new item, the first thing you're going to need is a blueprint. These can be dropped by enemies or found in chests. You'll then want to research the item and see if it's worth your time, not all blueprints are for better items. Then you'll have to call up Haley! This can be done by simply selecting to craft a blueprint from your inventory screen. Haley will insist you collect a number of the required materials - which can also be found in chests, dropped by baddies, or bought from the merchant after you've sold at least one of the item in question to be cataloged - and charge you a fee. If you've met these requirements then ta-da! you have yourself a shiny new item.
By the end of the game, you'll probably have a ton of unused blueprints. If you've got the money to burn, you can craft the items and then sell them, but there's not much else to do but ignore them.

There are two menus at your disposal, the game menu:
Help & Options> Explanations and game options
Load Game> Call back a previous save or restart the current encounter (from last autosave)
Leaderboards> Pwn your XBL friends!
Achievements> View the game's many achievements
Exit Game> To get back the main menu, or back to your dashboard
And Dust's menu:
Character> assign your skill gems to boost your abilities
Inventory> View things, equip things, and construct new things from blueprints
Map> Displays how much you've unlocked and what percentage of treasure you've found, as well as detailing points of interest within the grid
Quests> Active, Completed, Notes; the first two are self explanatory, but you'll also find notes scattered about, which provide a sort of riddle to help you understand and complete one of your quests. It's up to you to figure out which one, though…
Materials> a complete inventory of the random crap you've picked up. A green checkmark will indicate materials you've cataloged with the merchant
Stats> Game stats, including a time stamp, completion percentage and friend quest progress, among other things.

The controller map is pretty straight forward.
Your left stick navigates in the only directions you can go: left or right. Pushing it up or down simply asks Dust to look in that direction. Using the right stick does the same, except in dash mode. LT and RT follow suit.
This brings me to my one major complaint about the game: slippery platforming. The controls during platforming sections are a little… freakadelic. When hopping amongst small platforms, Dust would often slip off and my attempts to control this only made it worse. There are a number of vine climbing sections that are made extremely dangerous by the environment, and these spastic controls only make these sections infuriating. Anyway, back to the controller:
Clicking the right stick opens the map in full.
A is jump. It can be used in conjunction with down to leap off branches and the like.
X and Y are your melee attack buttons, with Y held down being the Dust Storm. B calls Fidget into action.
Once you've acquired healing items, they can be placed in your quick slot, which is accessed with LB.
Once Fidget has acquired her new abilities, you can cycle through them with RB.
Pressing start will pause the game and present the game menu.
Pressing back opens your in-game menu, as detailed above. Navigate through them by pressing LB and  RB, and sub menus with LT and RT.

The game is presented in casual, normal, tough and hardcore modes. There is a reasonable challenge in normal mode. While I felt I was always in control, I often found myself subject to "came-outta-nowhere" deaths, and ran out of healing items quickly - particularly in the early game. As I mentioned earlier, the battles often lasted a lot longer than I felt they should have, and some of the early bosses are downright annoying. When you spend 15 hours with it the game, however, you'll find yourself rather ahead by the end, and this was one of the easiest final bosses I've ever fought. Experienced gamers could definitely go ahead and start on tough or hardcore, as normal actually feels more like easy in the end.
I clocked about 15 hours in Dust, and with my completionist effort I achieved 111%. Curious, but a quick google search will explain the game actually holds 117% as true completion. Seeing as I maxed out literally everything, I have to assume the additional 6% relate to the XBL achievements that I can never be bothered with.

All in all, I really enjoyed Dust. I was so excited when I discovered this beautiful sidescroller, and it delivered. The few things I could possibly request improvement on are the iffy platforming, and the deterring key to chest ratio, which seems a bit off for the first half of the game, especially. They want you to spend as much time with the game as I did and backtrack and get everything, but this is a tedious  task for anyone just hoping to blast through. Not to mention the chests you can't reach until the end of the game often harbor items that would only have been helpful when you first acknowledged the chest - so it's actually pointless. It would - as always - be nice if the shop showed you how the items would affect you at your current level, and not just display their blatant stats, leaving you to do the math. That's it. This game is simple, fun, gorgeous, and totally worth the 15 bucks it goes for on Xbox Live. And if my testimony isn't enough, consider that the game has since made the rounds on Steam and GOG, and even been ported to PS4! If you're still unsure, just download the demo and try that out first. It sold me.
I feel it's only appropriate to recommend this game to everyone. Not only because it's fun and beautiful but because by purchasing it you'd be supporting an indie developer and demonstrating that there is still demand for simple, beautiful and fun games reminiscent of days gone by. I know not everyone can get behind the ol' side scroller type, but I'm finding lately that these games are some of the most outstanding releases in recent years (see Muramasa, Dragon's Crown...). This is a great game for any retro gamers out there that happen to have a 360 (or any of the other aforementioned) as the gameplay will feel very familiar to you, but the story and art are outstanding and new for you to experience. I enjoyed the shit out of this title.
…also, did I mention it's FUCKING BEAUTIFUL?!

  • Talk to people! A lot! Sometimes it offers an experience boost!
  • Keys. You want them. All of them. All of the keys.
  • Leveling up your health should probably be the least of your worries. It seems to me you'll have plenty at any given time, and when you don't, it really doesn't matter how much you have. Those enemies will stomp you no matter what. (Giants, for example)
  • Always check out cracked walls. Think Zelda without the catchy sound effect.
  • If you struggle with the platforming like I did, the best advice I can give you is line up your jump and then let go of the left stick. It seems if it even senses your presence, you're gonna slip off.
  • If something appears to be out of reach (in a pit of thorns, stuck on the other side of a wall, puddle of lava…) use Dust Storm to bring it to you!

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