Dean Dodrill, the man behind Humble Hearts, won the 2009 Microsoft Dream.Build.Play (along with the $40,000 purse). Dodrill spent the last few years working on Dust: An Elysian Tail, and many questioned whether or not such a small team could succeed in making an XBLA Summer of Arcade caliber title. How does this tale of tails play out?
The story opens on a waking character named Dust. Dust is awakened by a talking sword named Ahrah, and a flying fox-bat named Fidget. For unknown reasons, the sword has been summoned to aid Dust. The sword’s guardian Fidget refuses to let Dust take the sword outright. The trio set forth into a war ravaged world in search of answers. Meanwhile, the evil General Gaius is adamant about wiping the world clean of a unique race of beings known as Moonbloods. As it becomes clear that Dust had some sort of negative role in the massacring of these peoples, he sets out to do some good along his quest of self-discovery. Strangely enough, it seems the General has a personal affiliation with Dust, and the story unravels as Dust gets closer to the truth.
The gameplay is simplistic, but entertaining nonetheless. Skill Gems are earned with every level up. Upgrading Dust is as simple as dumping Skill Gems into the appropriate category (health, attack, defense, and Fidget’s power). The highest stat must remain within 4 gems of the lowest stat. In other words, it becomes impossible to create a one-sided character incapable of fighting/defending/etc. Dust stumbles upon various technique upgrades that allow him to access new areas of each location. After major boss battles, Fidget acquires new magic that can be used against enemies. Some are much more effective than others (electricity is the easiest way to bump up the multiplier).
Dust can protect himself with armor, weapon augments, rings, and pendants. The game offers impressive variations of each equipment type. It even provides blueprints of items that can be created at the blacksmith with a combination of the 42 loose materials. These ample variations can be found in chests and dropped by enemies. Or simply go to the shops and spend some coin to buy equipment. Either way, there are reasons to fight that exceed level progression: money, items, and blueprints.
The A.I., even on harder difficulties, is pretty slow. Even with the addition of magic and parry, it becomes repetitive after a few hours of play time. The formula is simple. Dodge the strong guys, mop up the little guys, and keep the multiplier up by using Dust and Fidget’s magic/attack combos. It’s a hard obstacle for any hack-and-slash game to overcome, and this sort of repetition is the only drawback in Dust.
Dust’s art is definitely what stands out the most. Though the hack-and-slash can get tiresome, there are always new areas that are compelling enough to explore. Some are even cleverly hidden beneath other commonly trafficked areas. No matter whether it was a town, a farm, a forest, each area has wonderful detail. The art is easily what separates this game from the other generic XBLA adventures.
In addition to the visually stimulating environments, each area has sections which cannot be accessed until later in the game. Sometimes, it’s an iron grab upgrade. Other times, it’s a colored resonance gem that opens previously sealed areas. This significantly increases Dust’s replay value.
Dust has hidden items in each area to find. There are hidden letters and notes that detail other secret areas like gifts for those who were patient enough to take the time and read through each one. There are also hidden trial areas called Cirelian Trials that test Dust’s abilities. These time trials are listed on the XBLA Leaderboards for all to see.
The best hidden items are Dust’s 12 friends which can be found in extra hidden areas. They give permanent boosts to Dust’s stats, but that isn’t why they’re so awesome. These Easter egg characters are a blast to find. Domo, Spelunky, and Dishwasher Dead Samurai can be found in hidden areas inspired by their games. These guys all hang out together in a mansion once they’re found. Hardcore gamers should get a kick out of finding all 12 friends (think 2011-2012 XBLA).
Dust suffers from the typical redundancies of a hack-and-slash, but offers more than enough attractive environments to keep the gameplay fresh. With a substantial amount of play time for an XBLA game, Dust is well worth looking into. The story is intriguing enough to push through to the end, and there will be many more Elysian Tails to come. If Dust is an example of what Humble Hearts can do with such a small team, let’s hope they bulk up their staff.
Version Reviewed: 360 (XBLA)