We’ve all had hopes of being recognized for our hard work, being able to make a sustainable living from it, and have others appreciate it. For developer Humble Hearts, and lead man Dean Dodrill, he’s living that dream. Initially an employee of a Triple-A team, Dodrill would later go indie and enter Microsoft’s annual Dream.Build.Play competition. He would submit Dust: An Elysian Tail and win in 2009. After winning the promotion Dodrill earned a coveted spot on Microsoft’s XBLA service, where him and the team at Humble Hearts have been working effortlessly since winning. What would ensue can only be described as a beautiful culmination of gameplay and art.
Dust solidifies itself as one of the most aesthetically pleasing games on XBLA, if not on the Xbox 360 as a whole. Still frames don’t do it justice, as it is an absolute visual pleasure to behold in motion. Beautiful, hand-drawn characters match the quality of a Disney production, as do the lush environments, ripe with flowing water, fauna weaving with the wind, and dynamic weather effects. At one moment I could find myself exploring a village brimming with sunlight, only to have it begin raining on me the next.
The visuals aren’t the only thing Dust has going for it, either. While I initially felt as though the combat mechanics would become stagnant over time and I would quickly grow bored, my feelings began to change as I passed the first hour of gameplay. The opening prologue is dialogue heavy, perhaps too much for some gamers’ tastes, but it serves its purpose of setting up the backstory and introducing characters you learn to love.
Your companion for the journey, Fidget, is a winged fox-like creature, and seems to be a combination of Sonic’s benevolent buddy Tails, and Lunar‘s Nall. He (she?) offers assistance and pointers, but can grow annoying over time with his (her?) squeaky voice.
Dust introduces quite a few mechanics to keep the game from falling into the trap of simply becoming a beat-em up, too. A simple crafting system allows you gather materials and blueprints from fallen enemies and hidden treasure chests, and character upgrades after each level allow you to gradually improve your stats. One criticism of this system, however, is the fact that each statistic must be within four points (levels) of the lowest stat, thereby preventing you from becoming an offensive powerhouse or defensive juggernaut.
Combat flows seamlessly and relies heavily on a three button system, although I found the combination of Y +B, when used in succession, to be the win button in most cases. This is especially true when facing off against the first boss, which can take nearly 10 minutes of button mashing and precision to take down, unless this special attack is used.
The levels borrow heavily from the Metroidvania style of games, as you can go back to explore the branching paths and hidden areas at any time. Fortunately, a world map makes it a breeze to head back to these environments, saving you from needless backtracking. Save points are sporadically spaced throughout levels as well, which is a great thing because you’ll be dying a lot. And by a lot, I mean every few minutes. Without upgrading your health immediately you will soon be overwhelmed, and some enemies will knock down as much as 75% of your hp in one hit.
While it is by no means perfect, Dust manages to deliver one of the grandest experiences to grace LIVE’s Summer of Arcade promotion, and is even more impressive when you consider that it was largely constructed by one individual. Whether you’re looking for a Castlevania-like adventure or a way to blow off some steam by bashing on some enemies who haunt an otherwise beautiful world, you’ll be well served if you choose to get lost in this voyage.
Combine Castlevania, Disney’s visuals, and a 90’s beat-em-up and you have an excellent adventure which is accessible to large audiences.
Dust: An Elysian Tail was provided for review by developer Humble Hearts. It can be purchased on the Xbox Live Marketplace for 1200 MSP ($15).