Traditionally, the Xbox Live Summer of Arcade is packed full of pleasant surprises, and this year has been no different. From the HD remake of Tony Hawk, to the actually enjoyable Kinect game, Wreckateer, Microsoft has not left their 360 owners high and dry during this summer's game drought. However, it seems that MS has saved the best for last, releasing Dust: An Elysian Tail as the final entry in this summer's promotion, concluding in a grand fashion.
Set in a fantastical world populated with anthropomorphic animals, Dust: An Elysian Tail tells the tale of Dust, a mysterious warrior who wakes up in the middle of the woods with no recollection of who he is or how he got there. Soon after waking up, Dust is joined by a talking sword, Ahrah, and its guardian, a flying nimbat (think fox/cat hybrid with wings) named Fidget. Monsters have overrun the world, and Dust takes up the plight of the little guy, and sets out to put an end to the torment. The amnesia angle is a bit worn as a catalyst for storytelling, but as the story develops, it becomes somewhat more compelling, at least enough to keep most players engaged.
As a traditional 2D side-scrolling hack-n-slash game, Dust could have very easily fallen into a genre's trap of being monotonous and boring, but it manages to mostly avoid that through well paced gameplay and a compelling story. Outside of his standard hacks and slashes, Dust learns three special combo moves where he and Fidget team up to deal screen clearing combo damage, which help drive up the experience multiplayer, helping move the character upgrades along more quickly. Overall, the majority of the game's mechanics are sound, and well thought out, but can grow to be a bit boring as you slog hours into the game doing the same combos.
As a counterpoint to the limited combat mechanics, Dust offers quite a bit in terms of exploration. The various areas of Dust's world are multi-tiered, and offer tons of treasure hidden deep within their recesses. Each of the different areas in the game all have their own personality, as well as unique characters that make visiting them, and revisiting them, a treat. From snow-capped landscapes to bioluminescent-lit underground caverns, there's variety in both the backgrounds and the enemies, which is something you don't see too often in games like this. Instead of smashing the same enemies over and over, each area offers up an intelligent selection of new baddies for Dust to destroy.
Right out of the gate, you can tell that there is something different about Dust: basically it looks like a late 1980s cartoon – but in a good way. The character designs seem similar to certain animated Disney shows like Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers and Ducktales – back when cartoons were still hand-animated. It's one thing for the characters to look good while they are standing still, but it's another thing for them to bring that visual finesse into battle with them. During the game's dialog-driven cutscenes, players get an impressive up-close look at Dust, Fidget, and the NPCs, but that quality doesn't degrade when those scenes end. As the players go into battle, everything on the screen looks like it was painted, and yet it moves fluidly, and always looks amazing. If Dust had nothing else going for it (even though it does), the graphics alone would be worth at least checking out.
While most of the highs and lows in Dust are pretty cut and dry, there is one thing that could trouble some fans, while entertaining others – the characters. It's clear that a lot of time and effort went into perfecting how everyone in the game looks, acts, and sounds, some players may still find the effort subpar, particularly if you compare it to some triple-A retail games. However, if you can move past comparisons, and recognize that the development team behind Dust is really small (basically one guy), you may grow to appreciate the kitsch value of the characters - and recognize how adorable and entertaining Fidget is (just try not laughing at her).
As a debut game from first-time developers Humble Hearts, Dust: An Elysian Tail is an ambitious effort. Sure, the core gameplay can grow to be a bit monotonous, but it's everything else that really makes this game stand out. For a downloadable game, the graphics are outstanding, to say the least, but they even surpass a lot of retail games, making Dust feel like you're playing a hand-animated cartoon. On top of that, the voice acting is well executed, the story is compelling, and it's just a fun game. If you're the type of person that was chomping at the bit for Muramasa a few years ago, and then were let down by how boring and convoluted the gameplay was, Dust avoids many of those missteps, and showcases that a 2D hack-n-slash game can still be really entertaining, gorgeous, and well worth your time.