Thinking about 2011′s Summer of Live Arcade action-RPG darling Bastion, what I recall a year later is the deep, unique story and the perfectly executed soundtrack. If you asked me today what I might remember about 2012′s XBLA slash-’em-up RPG Dust: An Elysian Tail a year from now, one word: combos. Glorious, astounding thousand-hit combos, all while flying around the screen like a whirling dervish conjuring fire columns, lightning bolts, and a flurry of bullets that put an Ikaruga boss to shame.
Melee combat feels like Ninja Gaiden-lite thanks to one less dimension, and magic spells. Well, let me say the first spell spawns about 50 homing bullets in a true bullet hell game fashion, and it only gets better from there. Dust bills its combat as “easy to learn, hard to master.” On the contrary, after about 45 minutes of quality time with Dust, his anime-like cat-bat companion Gadget, and the Sword of Ahrah, I felt like I was Falana’s version of Chow Yun-Fat. I would walk into a room, spin a sword here, shoot about 100 bullets there, and as every creature in the room fell out of the sky to the floor, there’s me standing in the middle of it all, looking badass.
Dust begins with a tale of Falana, a world on the brink of self-destruction by way of an all-consuming war. After a brief, shadowy battle our protagonist wakes up to a sword yelling “Dust,” his name. Weaponless and with some serious plot-driving amnesia, he follows the advice of Ahrah, the talking sword, and Gadget, the flying cat-bat, and heads to the nearest village (of pagodas) where his “purpose may be revealed.” You should be picking up on some pretty strong Asian influences at this point, which are thankfully rare when it comes to the kawaii type.
One of my favorite attributes of any game is giving the player the feeling of supreme power while keeping the gameplay itself challenging. If you’re a veteran of the schools of Castlevania or Metroid, you’re going to find secrets in Dust and make amazing gear from the blueprints you find within. If you keep the treasure hunting up on Normal difficulty, you’re going to find that about halfway through the game you are a god.
I’m being serious! You will fly above the masses, untouchable, and raining destruction down from on high. Thankfully, the difficulty will ramp up, but so will your power. It’s a constant struggle between godhood and lesser godhood. By the end of the game on Normal, nothing but the final boss will be able to stand in your way. Some sections are too easy that I found myself looking forward to starting the game again on harder difficulties, which is exactly what I think the developer was going for.
Starting again on Tough (Hard), I actually died. Not because a quest wanted me to (there is one), but because a hammer collided with my head. This was a new experience. My theory is that as the difficulty levels go up, what made you a god on normal is an absolute necessity on the Hardcore setting. I like the way Dust subtly ramps up the difficulty while your skills increase dramatically. Not only do you get to feel power, but it’s for a purpose. Those god-like moves are what’s going to keep you alive on Hardcore.
I previously mentioned Dust’s Metroidvania pedigree and many of the concepts are here: large maps with multiple rooms, collectible weapons, equipment, and abilities which are necessary to progress. Yes, you get new spells and abilities, and while they’ll enable you to get all the secrets over time, here’s the best part: You can get about 99% of the secrets in the game using a technique you learn in the first hour of the game.
You’ll learn this technique eventually in one particular room late in the game, but figuring out how to exploit it earlier means you’ll be getting treasure you definitely feel like you shouldn’t be getting. I don’t want to spoil the technique itself for you, but I bet you’ll figure it out as I have a sneaking suspicion that the developer meant for clever players to understand it. Dust is brilliant in it’s freedom to let clever players be clever and access secrets earlier, while still providing the means through gained abilities to solve almost every puzzle in the game. Of course, there are still some puzzles you’ll just need to figure out, and no abilities or magic can help with those.
Dust did one thing that I rarely see in games today: it didn’t treat me like I’m an idiot. Jumping up from one screen to the next, I’m not placed on the ledge at the bottom of the next screen like I wouldn’t have known to go in that direction. The game design seems to intentionally funnel the player in a specific direction when jumping up a screen. No, instead, if I’m not paying attention and am facing left when the ledge is to the right, I’ll fall back down a screen. Maybe I’ll hit some spikes, or I’ll have to fight some enemies again? Dust isn’t afraid of throwing your own little slip-ups back in your face, and while Dust never reaches Dark Souls levels of sadism, I still appreciate a game that doesn’t coddle me when I actually am being an idiot.
From a development standpoint, Dust is a brilliant example of someone coming up with an amazing idea for a game and putting in the blood, sweat, tears and countless hours needed to make it a reality. For a game made almost entirely by one man, Dean Dodrill, Dust is remarkably fleshed out in every aspect. A lesser game might skimp on a crafting system, or omit it entirely in favor of a beefier combat system or voice-overs instead of text for quests. Dust has all of those things, and a crafting system that is one of the best I’ve ever seen in an action-RPG.
The most notable and unique part of the crafting system is the way in which you obtain materials. You’ll still have to collect rare items, but only once, as selling any crafting material to the store for the first time enables the store to restock that material. Gone are the days of running the same area over and over to get ten spider legs. Get one, sell it, go on another quest, and when you come back, there’ll be 10 in the store to buy. A simple premise, but one that takes tens of tedious hours out of the picture, and puts sweet equipment in your inventory.
The graphics are spot-on: ominous and dark in caverns, shaded and lush in forests, and bleak on the battlefield. It was a fantastic design decision to use sprites in Dust, as the amount of action on screen during huge battles would humble the 360′s aging hardware if it were a more graphically intensive game. With most games that feature full voice-overs and long cutscenes, it’s pretty standard for me to detest some, if not all, of the voice actors by the end of the game. Not so with Dust. Although some characters feel more forced than others, the voice actors for Dust, Sword of Ahrah, and Ginger, the villager with a mysterious past, all did an outstanding job at conveying real emotion through their voice-over. Especially towards the the game’s climax, the righteous anger in Dust’s voice is raw and unmistakable.
To call Dust mediocre would be an understatement, but to call it outstanding would be hyperbole. What I will say is that Dust is very, very nicely done. It’s not without it’s small flaws, but overall, there’s nothing I can point to and say, “[This feature] didn’t work.” The atmosphere fit perfectly with the location and the story. The world is richly populated with characters and lore. Where the story sometime lags, Dust more than makes up for it with really enjoyable carnage. My hope is that Dust becomes the first in a series, but if or when it comes to a sequel, I look forward to it however far off it may be.
As much as I want to see Dust 2 in the near future, I have to content myself with the belief that Dust is the game it is because one man was able to execute his vision for his game exactly as he wanted it. So, take your time making Dust 2, Dean. Whenever you’re done, I’m in.