In Humble Hearts action RPG game Dust: An Elysian Tail you are Dust, a powerful fox warrior with a mysterious past. It isn’t the most original premise, but serves as a springboard for a compelling game with beautiful backdrops, fluid game play, and a touching, meaningful narrative.
As the game begins Dust finds himself alone in a glade, awakened by the words of the magical Blade of Ahrah, with no memory of who he is, how he got there, or what his motives are. After a brief conversation with the sword that raises more questions than it answers, Dust claims its power. Moments later Dust meets his companion for the game, a quirky nimbat named Fidget who was entrusted to look after the sword. Shortly thereafter, your journey to put the pieces together and uncover who Dust really is and where he fits into the war-strewn world of Falana begins.
The first thing you’re likely to notice about Dust is that it has stunning visuals. It seamlessly blends an assortment of painstakingly crafted two and three-dimension elements, and as you play through the game you’ll encounter plenty of eye candy. From its lush greenery and motion graphics down to its detailed health items, Dean Dodrill did not skimp on the details when he created Dust’s character animations and environments. One of the most impressive features on display is Dust’s fighting animation. Seeing him in action, whether I was parrying an enemy’s strike or soaring through the air with a Dust Storm, was always fun to watch.
At first glance it would be easy to group this game in among the numerous other Metroid and Castlevania-inspired (Metroidvania) games, but Dust stands alone for a few key reasons. This is a game with heart. It makes you laugh. It makes you care about its characters. It makes you feel powerful, and looks great while doing so. Above all, Dust makes you feel things most other modern games just don’t.
One of the game’s most entertaining components is its script, which is brought to life by a full voice cast. Even the most minor characters became interesting when their words were spoken. I particularly enjoyed the moments where Fidget played into the fact that she and Dust were in a game. The dialogue constructed a compelling world full of diverse and significant creatures, but there were a few times when the characters spoke so much at once that I wanted to just get back into the action.
The sound design is excellent. Sword swings, creatures and movement all sound like they should. If you listen carefully while exploring you can hear birds chirping in forests, thunder crashes during rainstorms, and running water as you approach water sources. The game plays a kind of acceleration tone as you rack up landmark combos in combat, and that element adds just a subtle touch of intensity to battles.
Dust’s controls are tight and responsive. Dust can dart all over the screen quickly and consistently dash out of harm’s way just in time to move on to his next target. That really helped me get through some of the game’s tougher battles, particularly when I was dealing with a large number of enemies at once. The battle system is a lot of fun, but I have to admit that on more than one occasion my eyes did momentarily glaze over because so much was happening onscreen.
I found the game’s level up and equipment systems incredibly useful. As I progressed through the story and collected better materials and blueprints I was able to forge my gear remotely, which was very convenient. The game gives you five item slots to work with, and I was constantly upgrading Dust whenever possible. Each time Dust levels up the game grants you access to a Skill Gem, which can be applied to enhance your Max Health, Attack, Defense, or Fidget attributes. Bouncing back and forth between the Inventory and Character screens to make Dust even stronger on the fly was great fun.
Navigating through Dust’s sprawling areas took some getting used to. Many sections of the world have branching paths, but your map sums up numerous scrolling screens into a single block, so it’s up to the player to figure out where to go within each area. The game also keeps track of how much of the map you’ve uncovered, as well as the amount of treasure you have collected within each section. This encouraged me to explore every single place I could think of, and I frequently used the game’s physics to gain access to some of the numerous treasure chests earlier than intended.
Early on I was hesitant to take on some of the side quests, but it quickly dawned on me that Dust is a game that was built with deliberate design choices in mind. It has no fat, and all of the side quests are worthwhile. Although some of these tasks seemed mundane, they were always worth a lot of experience points and gold, which really helped in leveling up. Completing them also provides the player with some of the game’s most unique moments and items.
One of the only major issues I had with the game was General Gaius. Even though every creature within the game swore that he was the vilest creature around, I remain unconvinced. Every time the game switched over to him, he seemed very genuine. If we actually got to see General Gaius commit some of the crimes he was held accountable for, I may have felt differently. As it stands, I wasn’t able to see him as cruel or unjust.
I had a lot of fun playing Dust. Its blend of classic and modern game play elements combined with fantastic scenery, fluid animation, solid game play mechanics, and ensemble voice cast created a refreshing entry to the action game genre.