I don't think I'm being shocking or controversial when I say this year's Summer of Arcade line-up -- usually the best and brightest that Xbox Live Arcade has to offer -- has been a bit of a bore. I found redeeming qualities in Tony Hawk and Deadlight, and genuinely liked Wreckateer for its playful party mechanics, but nothing was truly astounding. So it gives me faith in the game design process that Dust: An Elysian Tail, an indie title largely made by a single man, actually stands out as the best of the bunch. I appreciate a big budget as much as anyone, but Dust is an example of a game that uses smaller scale to its advantage.
The 2D action-RPG stars Dust, a furry amnesiac who wakes up in a forest when a magical talking sword seeks him out. The sword, named Ahrah, comes complete with its own guardian, a flying pixie-fox named Fidget. The two help Dust navigate his quest as he sets out on a "Hero's Journey" adventure, pulled straight from the writings of Joseph Campbell. Dust's fuzzy face isn't one of a kind, either. The entire world is populated by anthropomorphic animals, from bears and lizards to rabbits -- even though normal-size bunnies can be seen hopping around in the woods.
If this seems akin to a classic animated movie like Disney's Robin Hood, you're along the right track. The game carries itself with an innocent sensibility, and the humor is cute and clean with only the occasional swerve into saccharine. While some of the plot and dialogue can come off as a bit hokey and melodramatic, especially in the climax, it's in service of a family-friendly story that's safe for kids.
And to that end, the game is a beauty to watch. From a distance, the silky animations occupy a lush world of varied environments and enemies that show creative spark. The presentation stumbles slightly when we get more stilted close-ups during dialogue sequences or animated cutscenes, but only because it looks a bit muddy compared to the crisp backgrounds and sprites. If any recent downloadable game lends itself to spectating for the art style, it's this one.
In fact, it's probably better for younger audiences to watch, rather than play, due to a complex set of mechanics that I can only imagine would baffle kids. Behind the welcoming facade is an easy-to-learn, hard-to-master sword combat system with heavy reliance on well-timed parries and dodges. Fidget can use one of three types of magic, and one of Dust's basic attacks will amplify it. A firm grasp on the full suite of abilities is required to finish the game.
These abilities are augmented by a variety of navigation abilities to open new areas, experience and levels to customize stats, equipment to alter those stats, and a detailed crafting system. Often I had to sell off equipment to afford to make the latest and greatest blueprints I found, which always delivered immediately noticeable results in play. As empowerment fantasy, nothing is satisfying quite like showing off new toys to the enemies who were a pain only moments ago.
It may not be fair to give a pass to Dust's minor issues based on the relatively small size of its development team, but it would be even more unfair to ignore it. The game is above the usual caliber of indie titles on the Xbox 360, and managed to show up games with much bigger teams and budgets to boot. Sometimes, less is more.
This Dust: An Elysian Tail review was based on a Xbox 360 digital version of the game provided by the publisher.