The Summer of Arcade closes out with a bang, with the release of the much anticipated Dust: An Elysian Tail developed by Humble Hearts and available now on Xbox LIVE Marketplace for 1200 points. Why the anticipation? Because this is a near perfect melding of two very distinct genres: 2-D side-scrolling beat-em-up, and the role-playing game. It’s certainly one of the most gorgeous games we’ve seen in a long time, as it looks like you’re playing right in the middle of a lush Disney cartoon (lush yes, but still populated with monsters that will rip you limb from limb).
In the interactive opening, you are introduced as Dust, a warrior who has claimed the talking Blade of Ahrah in order to restore an endangered civilization, and at the same time, rediscover your own past which seems lost in the mists of time. Along with the sword comes Fidget, a nimbat, a strange flying cat fox that is the sword’s guardian and who will be your companion throughout the adventure.
It’s here that one begins to appreciate the writing quality and the voice work. Everything is voiced and at a remarkably high level. Take the time to read everything, all the interactions, and even the Notes one finds occasionally scattered about. It’s all interesting, can be quite useful, and much of it has a dry sarcastic humor to it that is refreshing. Aesthetics can only take one so far though, so what’s the gameplay like?
You will be fighting monsters … a lot. But the game gives you multiple moves to battle the baddies. Perform battle combos to do serious damage and fill up your energy meter, which allows you to work in concert with Fidget and use her battle abilities as well. As you work your way through the game, you’ll discover new abilities such as the Dust Storm which causes you to swing your sword in a whirlwind. Very satisfying. Every enemy has a small semicircle beneath them showing the amount of health they have left. This is just one of the nice little details the game includes to make it more gamer friendly. The beat-em-up portion of the game features a wide variety of enemies and their brutally unique attacks, which you’ll have to conquer with your own arsenal of moves.
The Details Are in the RPG
But the real fun of the game comes from the cleverly-crafted role-playing aspect. Here, you can see that Humble Hearts has really concentrated on the details. There are your normal quests, take this here, get me five of these things, so on and so on. These quests and killing enemies give you the standard experience points for leveling up, at which point you can increase your Maximum Health, Attack, Defense, and the effectiveness of Fidget. But that’s not all. There’s quite a bit of depth that will have you replaying areas trying to find elusive treasure or getting unique inventory items.
Inventory is broken down into seven areas: Quick Item (use LB to activate, it’s wise to put health items here), Armor, Augment (things that help your weapons or defense), Items & Keys (treasure chest keys, resonance gate keys, etc.), Left Ring, Right Ring, and Pendant. You can find many of these items off the corpses or in the game’s numerous shops. Pay attention to these items. There are quite a few of them and they can be very helpful in both your attack mode and in building items from blueprints.
Blueprints, you say? Yes. There’s a special category of inventory items called Materials. You can collect these Materials and have a Blacksmith make special weapons or other items based on Blueprints that you also acquire. In addition, you can sell Materials you find to the shops. If they have not “catalogued” that item, you’ll get a bonus for selling it to them, and you’ll see that item restocked in any future shops you come across. Collecting Blueprints, Materials, and cataloguing the Materials for the Shops provides that element of collecting and completion that many gamers love.
The Map also needs to be called out for special attention. Accessible via the Back button (along with all the other game info), it’s an abstract representation of your relative position in the game world. You can see which areas have undiscovered Treasure, which areas you have already Plundered, where there’s a Save point or a Shop (Saves are blue, Shops are yellow; if both are in the same area, the map square will be greenish), the Destination for the main quest, and whether the map area is a Challenge (a special arena-type battle where you can compare your high scores with your friends on the Leaderboards). You can see at a glance how much of the region has been explored and how many items you have collected from the area.
You may want to keep notes because the Map shows you the number of entrances and exits you have from a particular area. Certain abilities, such as climbing vines or crouch sliding only come after you’ve explored a few levels. Revisit older map areas once you gain these abilities to access previously inaccessible areas.
Who knows? There might be more things hiding within. For instance, on my first playthrough, I completely missed a chest that requires four keys to unlock (it comes fairly early in the game). Unlock it and you acquire a Friend (the first one looks like Super Meat Boy). These Friends are stored in your Sanctuary which you can visit and hang out at from time to time. (There’s also a Resonance Key there.)
The Perfect Mix
The winner of the 2009 Microsoft Dream Build Play Challenge, Dust: An Elysian Tail is a stunner of an Xbox LIVE Arcade game. It’s beautiful, it’s well-written, the voices are well-done, it has its funny moments, it can be difficult (try it on Hardcore if you think you’re so tough), and it has a surprisingly deep and satisfying story with a moral component that all leads up to a really fun role-playing game mixed with a hack-n-slash.