You wake up in the middle of a field with no idea who you are, or what you’re doing. A totally foreign winged creature flitters about, its aggravatingly chipper voice flinging questions at you incessantly. The ornate sword at your feet can also talk, but thankfully its voice is mercifully sombre. It informs you that you need to go on a mission to save the world; the reasons for this mission aren’t important right now. Of course they aren’t.
This is the basic setup for Dust: An Elysian Tail, and you’d be forgiven for any fleeting feelings of déjà vu you might have. Indeed, this opening routine is used in more video games than could be reasonably played in a lifetime. And while Humble Hearts’ inaugural effort certainly isn’t a total narrative novice, it suffers from following this well-trodden path a bit too closely.
Warring factions parallel the character’s internal struggles, while the slaughter of innocent bystanders acts as a means of artificially tugging at your heartstrings. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with these tropes – and in truth, the game often presents them in a charmingly self-referential way – but you’ve definitely been here before.
But we’re getting off track – back to saving the world. In order to carry out this task, you’ll travel between locations, fighting ne'er-do-wells, gaining distinct powers, and ultimately using the fruits of your labour to open up new areas to explore. Think Metroidvania, but with a bit more freedom and less skill-based roadblocks.
Dust, your plucky protagonist, has two main attacks: a basic slash, and the ‘dust storm’, which sees him spinning his sword in place. The latter attack can also be combined with various magical abilities provided by your flying feline friend to potentially devastating effect.
There’s also a crucial vertical element to combat, which will often see you juggling several enemies in the air before bringing them down for a fatal final blow. Thankfully, controlling this action is always fantastically fluid. Dodging in and out of the fray, racking up huge combos, and raining down devastating magical attacks all feels exactly as it should.
Each enemy that you lop down will reward you with experience points that play into a basic levelling system, allowing you to upgrade your stats. Cash, healing items, materials, and blueprints also frequently drop from these nefarious nemeses. The materials can either be sold, or used to craft the often powerful items detailed in the blueprints. These systems aren’t deep by any means, but do add a nice simple layer of strategy to the moments in-between the action.
Speaking of ‘in-between moments’, the title has a wealth of quests to complete outside the main storyline. Many of these amount to little more than running back and forth between two locations, but they do provide a neat distraction, as well as a handy way to level up. There are also numerous locked boxes hidden throughout the world, which – when opened – release adorable creatures who’ll give you a permanent stat increase. Again, these exploration-based elements aren’t going to set the world on fire, but clearing out the loot in each area is undeniably satisfying.
The game isn’t quite so sound on a structural level, though. While the first half of the main quest is remarkably deliberate in its design, the second feels much less polished. This is due in part to a lack of new ideas, but more so to a seemingly renewed focus on platforming. And while some of these decidedly jumpy sections do work as advertised, the vast majority fall victim to the game’s controls. Namely, the aforementioned fluidity is great when you’re slashing your way through a batch of bumbling brigands, but is much less helpful when you’re trying to navigate a series of increasingly minute platforms.
However, these sins can be somewhat forgiven when one views the game’s visuals and audio. Ludicrously lush backdrops react to random changes in weather, while characters themselves all move in a delightfully hand-drawn style. What’s more, the title features a beautifully orchestrated soundtrack which does a solid job of underscoring the action, while keeping quiet and subtle when appropriate. And while there are a few textures that look a bit stretched, as well as some slightly strange audio level issues between cut scenes, the overall presentation is a joy to behold.
Dust: An Elysian Tail is a relatively rousing beat-‘em-up experience. Its combat feels fluid and precise, its presentation is mostly gorgeous, and its story – while relatively pedestrian – is told with humour and panache. Unfortunately, a repetitive second half combined with some potentially profanity-provoking platforming hold it back from truly soaring.