You ever have one of those games that you so desperately want but just don’t have the means of playing it? For me, that game was indie title Dust: An Elysian Tail. Released in 2012, it was only available for Xbox and PC; I had neither and certainly wasn’t going to invest in either just for a single indie game. But I always hoped that, someday, the game would be released on other systems and, lo and behold, fate threw me a bone and gave Dust a release on the PS4 in 2014.
Despite my eagerness, however, I have only just managed to properly play it for myself. Was it worth the wait or did I get needlessly overexcited?
The game focuses on the titular Dust, who has been struck with a classic case of amnesia. Shortly after waking up in the middle of a forest with no idea who he is, he’s approached by a talking, floating sword (typical, eh?) called the Blade of Ahrah, who has arrived to assist Dust and help him reclaim his memories. Dust also finds himself being hounded by a small, sassy nimbat called Fidget, who has been chasing after the sword for her own reasons.
Together, the three embark on a journey across the land, helping those in need, battling monsters and trying to find out who Dust really is. The plot is very simple and easy to grasp, but while it may seem predictable, there are enough swerves to keep you on your toes. It feels like a lot of care’s been put into the story; it’s simple, but there’s a certain heart to it.
Same goes for the characters. Most of them have pretty basic characterisation that you’ve seen before, though I liked how Dust averted the usual “amnesiac warrior” tropes; he manages to be a genuinely sweet person at times and even develops a humourous back-and-forth with Fidget early on in the game. Speaking of the nimbat, while she can be a bit grating at points, she’s pretty entertaining too and pulls her weight enough to not feel like a pointless addition.
But you’re not going to be picking this game up for its plot. Dust is a 2D action-adventure with RPG elements and an emphasis on exploration. It’s very similar to the Metroid games; you travel between areas, scouring every nook and cranny for goodies and opening a can of whoop-ass on any enemy that gets in your way.
Combat is very easy to get to grips with, since you only have one basic attack button, and while there are a few special combo attacks, they’re very simple to perform with only a short series of specific button presses. Despite this, you can have Dust leaping all over the place, slashing up multiple enemies in rapid succession. You can even get some crazy air-time with his air combos, and it’s important that you keep your streak up since the higher your combo chain, the more experience you’ll get, which leads to gaining skill gems that can boost Dust’s health, attack, defense or Fidget’s projectiles.
Yes, Fidget does help Dust in battle and while her projectiles are useless on their own, using the Dust Storm attack (where Dust rapidly swings his sword in a circular motion) at the same time sends those projectiles swirling around like a hurricane, racking up the combo and leaving enemies open to Dust’s own attacks. And if you attack an enemy just as they attack you, you can parry it and break the enemy’s defense for a short time. Word of warning, though: you can’t overuse the Dust Storm, projectiles or Dust’s dodges since they eat up an energy bar that refills over time. The game expects you to get into the thick of battle, which isn’t a bad thing since it’s so much fun to do.
Thanks to some tight and responsive controls, combat (while arguably repetitive) is always a blast to play. It’s so satisfying getting to grips with it and turning Dust into an unstoppable force of nature, though it can sometimes be a bit hard to keep track of where he is amongst all the flying, slashing and explosions. I even found myself accidentally parrying some enemies as a result, and some deaths came as a result of not paying attention to my health bar, which can be re-filled with health items. Said items are pretty plentiful and some can heal certain status ailments, so it’s always handy to have several of them in your inventory.
If you’re the kind of person that couldn’t get into games like Bayonetta or Devil May Cry, Dust‘s simple combat system will be right up your alley since it allows you to feel like an epic bad-ass warrior without the need to memorise 50+ attack combinations or something. In fact, Dust is a relatively easy game all things considered. I played on the Normal difficulty and, while there were plenty of early deaths, I very rarely struggled with most encounters, partly because I was armed to the God damn teeth.
While Dust can’t change weapons, you can equip him with armour and other accessories that are either dropped by enemies, found in treasure chests, purchased from merchants or built by a blacksmith, which can give Dust that extra edge in battle. The blacksmith is especially useful since, if you complete a certain side-quest, you can have her build new equipment for you wherever you are, just so long as you have enough money and the right materials. Gathering those can be a bit of a pain but, if you sell a type of material to the merchants, they will restock that material so you can purchase more of them later, rather than go and grind for them.
Speaking of grinding, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll need to ever do that, since getting into fights isn’t the only way to get experience. You’ll come across all manner of people who need Dust’s help and will reward you if you assist them. There’s actually not that many of them in the game but it’s always worth going out of your way if only for the EXP, even if some of them require a bit of back-tracking, which is never fun. While you can use the game’s save points to warp you back to the world map, you need to have a Teleport Stone to do so. Otherwise, if you want to leave an area fast, you better hoof it to the nearest exit.
Fortunately, the world of Falana is rife with places to explore and treasures to find. There are a tonne of hidden areas to check, and the in-game map will even show which rooms contain treasure, which is handy. Though you won’t be able to fully explore everywhere until you’ve acquired new abilities for Dust that he gains throughout the story, like a slide ability and a double jump.
Unfortunately, Dust doesn’t offer much else aside from that, which leads to my biggest criticism (which actually isn’t a proper criticism if you think about it) – the game’s too damn short. I think I cleared it in over 12 hours (not 100% cleared, mind you) and was left severely wanting more. I was honestly kind of shocked when I reached the game’s third chapter and realised I was nearly half-way done. There are these optional challenge areas which give you bonus equipment depending on how well you do in them, but they’re mostly there to serve as the game’s online score attack.
Granted, this is an indie title and was developed by one person (Dean Dodrill, if you’re wondering, who only brought in outside help for the story, music and voice acting). With that in consideration, Dust is surprisingly well constructed and is an achievement in and of itself. It says a lot if the worst thing I can say about it is that I wanted more of it.
Though, if I had to criticise one other thing, it’d be the animated cutscenes. There aren’t many of them (hell, they don’t even appear until the second half of the game) but they stick out a bit; the characters move rather stiffly in them. Also, the audio is much louder than the actual game for some reason.
Don’t misunderstand me, though. The rest of the game is God damn beautiful and is the other main reason why I wanted it so badly. I love the hand-drawn aesthetic, especially Dust’s model, which moves so fluidly. The backgrounds are gorgeous too; from the calming, snowy peaks of the Blackmoor Mountains to the forlorn and ravaged Sorrowing Meadows, every area is dripping with atmosphere, which is only accentuated thanks to the music. Oh, and the voice acting’s great too, with Lucien Dodge and Kimlinh Tran helping make Dust and Fidget’s relationship as enjoyable as it is. Both have some great comedic timing but also know when to amp up the drama for more serious scenes.
All in all, Dust: An Elysian Tail is a game I can recommend to almost anybody. Whether you’re simply looking for a short, simple game to pass the time or a challenging one with a rewarding combat system, Dust has something for everyone to enjoy. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go and bug Mr Dodrill about that eventual sequel.