Dust has been flying under the radar quite considerably for the past few years. Intiially slated to be an Xbox Live Indie title, it was eventually slated to be an Xbox Live release in 2011, only to be delayed into the Summer of Arcade in 2012.
Considering I had relegated it to “that one game with animals in it”, I was utterly shocked at how great Dust really was. Essentially created by a one man studio, Dust outshines nearly every other major studio action platformer on the Xbox Live Arcade: and then some.
Dust is essentially an action platformer with Metroidvania elements. Yep, that’s right — it has elements of exploration just like Shadow Complex, or any number of recent games that have attempted to replicate that classic feel. There are going to be a number of areas that you’ll need to memorize (such as a high ledge, or a tunnel) so that when you pick up the correct powerup or ability later on in the game, you can head back and collect the juicy rewards.
The game starts out innocently enough — the main character, aptly named Dust, finds himself in the middle of a clearing, unable to remember anything regarding his past. Suddendly, a talking sword appears, evidently summoned by the spirit of Dust, and along with it, a cute bat-cat guardian named Fidget. Dust’s first mission is to head to the nearest village, and find out more about his past.
Despite the fairly unimaginative setup, Dust manages to keep you interested throughout the entireity of the game. The story will not only feed you tibits of information here and there that patch together the story, but it’ll also present you with a number of interesting characters that, if you don’t wholly care for, you’ll at least want to see what happens to them. The game’s dialogue is also fairly funny — it isn’t going to win an Emmy or anything, but it’s good enough for Saturday Morning cartoon material, on top of a compelling story.
But the intrigue doesn’t just stop at story quests — Dust also gives you a number of interesting sidequests to embark on, which makes the game feel more like a full retail purchase rather than a $15 download. One quest in particular, which deals with a mysterious magical box, and the box’s insane owner, was extremely interesting, and exceeded my expectations of side quests in general.
There’s also a number of arena levels, which task you with defeating enemies and getting from point A to point B in a certain amount of time. These arenas are ranked and are leaderboard compatible, which only adds to the game’s replay value. On top of all that, it will take you quite some time to find all of the game’s hidden secrets, chests, items, and save all of the XBLA cameo characters from certain doom.
So what about that afforementioned talking sword? It does actually have combat capabilities, right? Well, given the “action” part of Dust‘s “action-platformer” moniker, of course! Dust has the ability to slash with X, use Fidget’s magical blasts with B, summon a dust storm with Y, and dodge left or right with LT/RT/the Right Analog stick.
By using Fidget’s blast power in tandem with the dust storm, you can fling projectiles all across the map at enemies: the only catch is Dust will tire out entirely if you keep the dust storm going too long, so you have to micromanage it to get the best results. In addition to dodging, Dust can also parry attacks by attacking and holding X just before a strike. All of it works extremely intuitively, and I never had a problem with doing what I needed to do.
All of this combat can be put to use through five difficulty levels: Easy, Normal, Hard, and Hardcore. While at first glance it may seem like AI improvement and increased enemy damage may be the only thing increased difficulties bring to the table, but in actuality, they create something else entirely: a war of attrition.
On harder difficulties, Save Points don’t heal you as much, or at all, which means that you have to conserve your items and food to be able to survive. If you’re looking for a challenge, I’d recommend playing on at least Hard. Though the main story isn’t as long as most other full retail titles, there is enough content here in general to last you a long while.
As the cherry on top, Dust also contains a number of amazing video game references that make it obvious that it’s a labor of love. For instance, the Ninja Gaiden “Izuna Drop” combo is performed with the exact same combination of buttons – X, Y, X, X, X, Y. There are numerous other references, such as the inexplicable “wall chicken”, a direct reference to Castlevania‘s absurd food items found inside solid walls. There’s even direct references to Resident Evil 4 and more, but I don’t want to spoil too many of them here.
Although it can get repetitive at times, Dust is easily the most charming game in the entire Summer of Arcade. In fact, it’s one of the most enjoyable Metroidvania/action RPG games I’ve ever played. For a scant $15, Dust single handedly outshines many $60 retail releases — all due to the work of basically one person. If that’s not a testament to how small developers can survive in today’s publisher heavy system, I don’t know what is.
This review is based on a digital copy of Dust: An Elysian Tail for the Xbox Live Arcade.