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Dust: An Elysian Tail

Amnesia: The most convenient of plot devices.

Our hero is curled up on the green woodland floor. Dazzling, hand drawn flowers dance in the background as a cool wind swims between the ancient oak trees. A talking, mouth-less sword, awakens him, claiming ntw to know why it has to bring him back from his slumber, but it’s clear that this is the foreshadowing of a great event to come. Accompanied by the guardian of the sword, a dippy sidekick, they won’t let him snooze any longer. Climbing to his feet, our hero cannot remember who he is, where he came from, or what tragedies may lay in wait. Our hero is Dust.

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Having played video games from the age of three there are often times when déjà-vu inevitably arises. Dashing through the glade as Dust, giving the nameless enemy what for, I had the sneaking suspicion that this wasn’t the first time this area had been explored. Much like our hero, I too stood atop the hillside overlooking the lands below trying to recall why I felt this way. Those that played entries in theMetroid and Wonder Boy series will undoubtedly experience similar emotions.

Dust: An Elysian Tail is an XBLA 2D side-scrolling hack’n’slash adventure existing in a colourful world in bright, vivid detail, complimented by its hand drawn appearance. With the odd exceptions such as the cardboard cut-out animations of deer, the amount of detail is impressive, although it never achieves the level of awe you may encounter whilst watching a Pixar or Studio Ghibli movie. But it’s enticing nonetheless.

And while Humble Hearts’ creations don’t always divert enough from its sources of inspiration, there’s no doubt that these are loving adaptations rather than stolen ideas, and will capture the imaginations of its intended audience. The Blomps – hovering exploding balls – are, for example, a direct imitation of the custardy floating thing from a classic episode of the old kids programme Trap Door. It’s a shame then that the early hours of story are filled with uninteresting characters sprouting dialogue that leaves much to be desired. With the world pretty on the eye but not on my imagination until much later, it was left to the gameplay mechanics to hook me in.

You press a button to jump. There’s an attack button and a special move one. It’s a video game.

Now we have the ruddy obvious out of the way, the hordes of pesky critters that stand between Dust and greater victory can be dispatched via a flurry of sword strikes, combinations and your sidekick Fidget’s projectile attack. Though weak, this projectile attack can be powered and multiplied by the use of a complimenting wind power. As a gameplay mechanic this looks great; however, it is all too easy to spam this ability defeating most enemies with ease. Thankfully hand-to-hand combat is more challengingly effective and enjoyable in the way that classic 16-bit titles achieved. Here, less is more – there’s no bible of combinations, and the small selection available are different enough in animation and purpose to make you want to use them, rewarded by the splendour of the paintbrush smooth carnage.

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As the carnage progresses, Dust becomes stronger through a simple and meaningful levelling system. Each new power keeps the combat refreshing. New equipment can be discovered, bought or forged by a blacksmith, weapons upgraded with augments and materials looted to create items from blueprints. Everything is kept simple, sacrificing in-depth customisation to avoid time consuming item management and granting an understandable in-game improvement as Dust and his apparatus increases in power.

This does reduce the difficulty and sense of accomplishment one may find from a more demanding experience, but it’s clearly been designed with maintaining pace and alleviating player frustration in mind.

Platforming is basic and thankfully without any leaps of faith or fall damage. Earlier inaccessible locations can be revisited when advanced abilities are learnt; backtracking is a rewarding exercise. Mysterious shopkeepers are dotted around and will exchange goods with you, allowing you to sell materials so they can search for more stock, or, if you’ve been taking a pummelling, stock up on food to heal those wounds.

These shopkeepers aren’t the only vocal citizens that can be met though. The ability to speak to the villagers and other non-playable characters gives depth to the world and encourages interaction. While it’s pleasant to have voice acting for all characters in a downloadable title much of the earlier conversations are uninspiring and do little to engage. There’s no attachment to any of the big-eyed characters, or the typically mysterious lead. Once the first chapter comes to a close the story takes a few twists and turns, casting Dust into realms that are more creative and bizarre, and the story and its cast finally show some interesting character (even with the twists being clear as day).

One hub is dedicated to the world that exists at the bottom of our seas, and whilst beautiful to behold, the immersion is broken by constant character close-ups, whether its plot development or off-the-cuff banter. In many cases the banter between the fellowship would have worked better in real-time, helping to provide an audio treat to the ear as the usual sounds of sharpened metal meeting bone ring out. Cutting away from the action for a chat breaks the flow on too many occasions. There’s also no need for there to be two text boxes to skip out of trading with a merchant. The goodbye should be in real-time.

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This isn’t to say that Dust is of a poor quality throughout, but it suffers from being unrefined around the edges and force-feeding the story. There are some neat touches: The way the fourth-wall is broken during the control introduction was sweet, and the few dialogue choices littered throughout the adventure – no matter how small – are always appreciated. There are also Easter eggs in the form of trapped prisoners that you can find hidden away. Some of which you’ll no doubt recognise from other worlds.

It’s a cheeky addition and pulled off well. Later in the adventure there was a visible item that had been propped in the background. Finding a note in a secret area, I put the two together and realised there was a way to interact with the planted object. Lightning struck and Dust was transported to a secret area. These little touches can be quite magical and unexpected, furthermore aided by the clear map which highlights what areas have already been pillaged and those remaining. Which is a welcome addition for those addicted to collectables.

The orchestral score is fine. The musical composition that plods along underneath the peaceful areas is soothing in a lullaby manner; the key notes soon looping in your ears. The lack of variance and dedicated themes is a missed opportunity as there’s never an audio impact when discovering a location or grand event. Sound is a story-teller itself but is mostly used here as a functional device.

The last push and final confrontation are a union of repetition and frustration, overstaying its welcome and almost undoing the good work. Bookended by a flat beginning and ending, it’s the entertaining centre of this adventure that is its strong suit. Here the beautiful paint work and loving dedication to the 16-bit games of yesteryear shines through. Originally beginning development as an indie title before picking up a Microsoft award and XBLA publishing, developer Humble Hearts’ Dust: An Elysian Tail is an underdog success story.

7 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is the Deputy Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in December 2010. Get in touch on Twitter @shaneryantb.

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