Dean Dodrill, the creator of Dust: An Elysian Tail, is an ambitious man. In 2009, he won Microsoft’s Dream.Build.Play competition which gave him the funds necessary to create his dream game. Almost three years later, Dodrill’s impassioned vision has finally become a reality, as Dust: AET has made its way to the Xbox Live Arcade. However, Dust: AET isn’t remarkable simply because it was made by one man. No, it would be meritorious even if it were made by a thirty person team. Dust: AET is an engaging affair that manages to have an astounding amount of content for a downloadable title. All of this is highlighted by beautiful visuals and a moving soundtrack, making Dust: AET one of the most memorable titles to hit the Xbox Live Arcade platform in quite a while.
Dust: AET tells the story of the titular character and his quest for identity. Dust awoke in the forest one day to find himself surrounded by Fidget (a “Nimbat”, or rather, a flying cat-like creature), and a talking sword which is impressively named The Blade of Ahrah. Without any recollection of who or where he is, Dust sets off with his companions, when he promptly happens upon a town being attacked by monsters. As Dust disposes of them, he simultaneously begins to define himself as a virtuous character, and unravels a more perilous plot of greater danger.
As Dust learns more about himself and his abilities, he grows as a character through the narrative (which ranges at times from serviceable to phenomenal), and through the combat mechanic. Throughout Dust: AET‘s many side-scrolling screens are legions of enemies. Dust has two methods at his disposal for combat. The Blade of Ahrah serves its purpose for typically run-of-the-mill melee attacks. Dust can also unleash a ranged attack called “Dust Storm”. More interestingly, Dust Storm can be combined with weak projectiles from Fidget to create an onslaught of flurried attacks that often fill the entire screen. Further, these attacks can all be chained together to form sensational combos, often surpassing 1,000 consecutive hits. Consequently, the game can suffer from severe frame rate issues when these encounters become too hectic, although these moments were usually few and far between.
While these battles are quite enamoring, the most enjoyable aspect of Dust: AET‘s gameplay comes from the rewarding progression system. Dust levels up and new abilities are learned at a rate that’s just quick enough to feel as if something’s constantly being accomplished and new ground is continually being broken. As this happens, it becomes incredibly enticing to journey back to already traveled lands to see what new treasures have become available. Further compounding this enticement is the expertly laid-out map system that conveniently informs the player which screens still hold hidden secrets, and which have already been successfully plundered.
All of the features of Dust: AET mentioned thus far are positives, but it’s the aesthetics that are the glue to the entire experience. Profoundly characterizing the whole game, the wondrous visuals are immediately endearing and captivating. More tellingly, that feeling never diminished throughout the course of the 10+ hour campaign. It’s difficult to not simply sit still and figuratively inhale the scenery — from the mystical woods to underground caverns to mountain tops, it’s all downright sublime.
Apart from the astounding artwork, Dust: AET is pushed along nicely by a charming cast of characters. As the story evolves, Dust becomes increasingly relatable. Fidget, constantly serves as the game’s comic relief, producing a surprising number of laugh-out-loud moments. Almost every persona met along the way is interesting in some quirky and memorable way. This makes Dust: AET feel like more than the usual “Metroidvania” game; it gives the game a personality all its own.
Many years and thousands of man-hours were put into Dust: An Elysian Tail, and it shows. Dust: An Elysian Tail may not reinvent the genre or really bring anything new to the table, but it does a much better job than most other games of feeling like a carefully crafted project. A ton of love, care, and dedication went into this game, and it reflects that when playing at all times. Dust: An Elysian Tail is near flawless in its execution. Maybe more importantly, it seems to always carry about with a sense of unbridled enthusiasm, and that’s positively refreshing.