Dust: An Elysian Tale

Masterpieces sometimes tend to come from unexpected places, with the Best Picture winners for the annual Academy Awards, for instance, being sometimes obscure to the general movie-going public. Self-taught illustrator and animator Dean Dodrill, moreover, isn’t exactly a household name in terms of gaming to the point where he lacks a Wikipedia page, and was working on an independent animated film called Elysian Tale, which he ultimately converted into the game Dust: An Elysian Tale, seeing its original release on the Xbox Live Arcade in 2012 with Microsoft Studios its publisher, although surprisingly, it would see release on other non-Microsoft, platforms, most recently iOS devices in 2015, proving a contemporary classic.

Dust takes cues from sidescrolling RPGs such as many of the portable Castlevania titles and Odin Sphere, with various platforming stages divided into connected chambers that might vary in volume, the titular protagonist engaging in real-time hack-and-slash combat with the enemy and occasionally leveling. He can summon his sidekick Fidget to shoot magic at foes, sometimes necessary to kill certain antagonists. Early in the game Dust contacts a blacksmith who can produce equippable items for him to increase various states, the player acquiring an item allowing them to do so regardless of their location, with new items necessitating certain materials dropped by enemies.

Although the game doesn’t record which enemies drop what materials, constantly upgrading to the best equipment via blueprints the player may find from enemies or locked treasure chests that require keys (sometimes four) to open, is hardly necessary, at least on the easiest difficulty, to make it through Dust. Unlocking chests requires players to press a blue ball that rotates on a compressing meter a few times, which is hardly an intrusive process. Bosses tend to be straightforward encounters, although a few foes, particularly large ones, sometimes require the player to attack at the moment they do so in order to daze them and make them vulnerable to higher damage. The battle system works well overall, the adjustable difficulty accommodating players of diverse skill levels.

Aside from an optional area where the screen turns black and the game crashes, interaction isn’t intrusive, either, with easy menus, clear direction on how to advance, maps to prevent players from getting lost, common save points that fully restore Dust, and so forth. The game further adopts exploration mechanisms from the Metroidvania titles, with acquirable abilities enhancing the protagonist’s exploration of areas. Overall, Dust interacts quite well with the player.

If the game has a weak point, it lies with the narrative, which is a tad on the derivative side. Amnesiac protagonist? Check. Flying feline friend? Check. Talking sword? Check. Actually, those are pretty much the sole inspirational elements, with the rest of the storyline, studded solely with anthropomorphic characters, being enjoyable, especially for furries such as Yours Truly.

The soundtrack is another highlight, with plenty gorgeous tracks, but some areas lack music. The voice acting is largely top-notch, with Dust generally being easy on the ears overall.

The visual style is also nice and fluid, with animate portraits narrating cutscenes alongside the occasional animated cutscene, the only real hangup being that the character sprites don’t change during story scenes outside the fully-animated sequences.

Finally, a straightforward playthrough takes a little less than ten hours, with plenty to boost playing time such as obtaining one hundred percent completion in every area, alongside trophies.

Ultimately, Dust: An Elysian Tale one can easily confer the title of modern masterpiece, given its many solid elements such as its gameplay, control, sound, visuals, and replay value. One, however, can levy strikes against the game with regards to the rare crash, derivative plotline, and uncommon lack of music for particular areas, although the game overall definitely ranks among this reviewer’s favorites of all time, an absolute steal on iOS devices at $6, likely the case with other platforms. This reviewer very much hopes that Dust isn’t the swan song of its creators, and that it receives sequels and/or spiritual successors.

This review is based on a playthrough on an iPad Air.

The Good:
+Fluid, fast combat system.
+Excellent control.
+Superb soundtrack and voicework.
+Nice visual style.
+Plenty lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-Crashy at one particular area.
-Story is somewhat derivative.
-Some areas without music.

The Bottom Line:
A modern masterpiece.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: iOS
Game Mechanics: 10/10
Controls: 9/10
Story: 8/10
Music/Sound: 9/10
Graphics: 9/10
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: Less than 10 Hours

Overall: 9.5/10

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