For those of us raised in the bygone era of 2D side-scrollers, the recent success of games like Rayman Origins, Shadow Complex and Super Meat Boy is reassuring proof that this style of game is slowly regaining popularity. Continuing this winning trend is Dust: An Elysian Tail, the final game in the “Summer of Arcade” promotion on Xbox Live. What started as an independent game concept from developer Dean Dodrill, who operates under the name Humble Hearts, Dust: An Elysian Tail became a highly anticipated game long before it was even finished.  Now with a full release courtesy of publisher Microsoft Game Studios, we finally have a chance to play this visually stunning and thoroughly enjoyable platformer.

You begin your adventure in the shoes of a talking furry creature (presumably a rabbit or dog) who is something of a blank slate. Having woken up in a forest and being stricken with amnesia, he has no knowledge of his identity or how he got there. When he happens upon a magical, talking sword, clues to his identity begin to emerge. Assuming the name of Dust, your adventure begins in earnest with you learning your basic skills with the sword as your guide. To aid you throughout the game, you are given a winged guardian, Fidget, who is your constant companion. Fidget assists you in a number of ways, from finding treasure to helping out in combat, so you will have plenty of quality time with this rather quirky character.

The basic premise of a protagonist with amnesia is not enough to carry the game, so Dust: An Elysian Tail has two plot threads running concurrently. Dust soon learns that a war is raging between twos sides, the mostly peaceful race called the Moonbloods and the armies of the tyrannical General Gaius. The general is unleashing hordes of monsters upon the land, which are responsible for the destruction of entire towns, not to mention the loss of thousands of innocent lives. As events unfold and Dust becomes more aware of his own past, it becomes apparent his involvement runs much deeper than initially thought. He has connections to both the Moonbloods and General Gaius, which provide some of the most dramatic story arcs in the game.

The story is above average for a platformer, however it does borrow heavily from standard role-playing game plotlines. The theme of war, genocide and divided loyalties are very common threads in the genre, so in that respect, Dust: An Elysian Tail offers nothing we have not seen before. The manner in which the story is presented makes it both dramatic and absurd in equal measure, making this a game you will struggle to take seriously at times. All of the characters in the game are animals and this, in combination with the sometimes cartoonish visuals, offsets much of the impact the story seeks to deliver. Having said that, there are some genuinely compelling moments to be found here, so to dismiss the story as throwaway would be doing it a disservice.

The gameplay style of Dust: An Elysian Tail combines side-scrolling platforming with action RPG elements, and it successfully balances both without feeling too cumbersome. As Dust, you must make it through a variety of levels, killing an assortment of monsters and completing objectives. These include the standard fetch quests, fighting off monster invasions and rescuing characters in distress. While the tasks feel well differentiated, the method of completing them rarely varies. Every level you play is filled with monsters of various sizes, and you must use your skills and abilities to survive their attacks and complete the mission. Boss and large-scale enemy battles are frequent, however they exist mainly as temporary roadblocks that are easily overcome.

The aforementioned RPG elements are evident from the very beginning, and they follow the standard formula of levelling up through combat and discovery. Completing tasks, killing enemies and finding treasure all serve the pad your experience point coffers, and you will find yourself levelling up very quickly during the first hour of the game. The benefit to this is more health, stronger attacks and more money. The latter can be used to buy healing items, defensive trinkets and materials to make other items. The levelling makes you feel like you are progressing, but rarely by leaps and bounds. Since you acquire experience points rapidly, there is little incentive to level grind to the extent that you might in other RPGs.

One common RPG trope that has carried over into Dust: An Elysian Tail is backtracking, and you will spend a great deal of time doing just that. The main quest objectives are linear and focused, however the side quests are where the game really opens up. Seemingly every friendly NPC you meet is in need of assistance, and many of these objectives are completed incrementally as you play through. Some require you to collect certain items, while others have you rescuing others or delivering messages. The drive to complete these side missions will have you revisiting the same areas, both to complete your tasks and find any treasure you previously missed. Overall, it’s a tried and tested genre convention and it’s used to great effect here.

Having said all that, keep in mind that Dust: An Elysian Tail is a platformer first and an RPG second. Accordingly, certain RPG elements have been either dumbed down or omitted altogether. The side quests, backtracking and levelling add a sense of enduring purpose, however the ability to customize your character and level up specific attributes is non-existent. You power up and gain experience simply by playing through the game, so everything scales according to your level progression. Those wishing to build their character from the ground up, and hone specific skill sets, will find a complete dearth of options here.

The combat in Dust: An Elysian Tail begins with a few good ideas brought to the fray, however it never rises above its simple hack n’ slash mechanics. Dust wields his sword well and you can simply slash at most enemies until their life meters deplete, however this approach will  qucikly prove tedious. Your best attack by far is Dust Storm, a twirling blade attack that impacts everything in its immediate radius. Fidget also has projectile attacks that, when used in combination with Dust Storm, creates a screen filling geyser that kills everything in sight. This is likely to be the approach you take throughout most of the game, and you’ll often find yourself lazily relying on it. However, there is no denying that it gives the combat a deliciously chaotic feel.

While the combat is flashy and stylish, it ultimately feels shallow due to an overall lack of challenge. The enemy variety provides plenty of different foes to fell, however the method in which you dispatch them hardly varies. Most enemies can be killed by using the aforementioned Dust Storm and Fidget projectile combination, or head-on slashing with your sword. The sheer number of enemies you encounter can prove intimidating, but few of the enemies pose much of a challenge. Even the most difficult enemies, such as the dauntingly large giants and bosses, can be stunned with a well-timed parry attack and quickly killed off. For these reasons, I highly recommend playing this game on the higher difficulty settings.

The lack of variety in how you approach enemies also leads to the other flaw, an inherent lack of progression. The aforementioned RPG elements will make you stronger and tougher over the course of the game, leading you to believe that your abilities and skill sets will also grow with the character. Unfortunately, the progression seemingly stops in the first act. After you learn the Dust Storm and a few useful attacks, the cycle of repetitious combos begins and it never really lets up. Even Fidget’s abilities, which are limited to elemental projectiles, remain static for the entirety of the adventure. These perceived shortcomings might be completely forgivable to other gamers, however the combat in Dust: An Elysian Tail ultimately comes across as a missed opportunity.

On a positive note, the controls are one area in which this game excels. Platformers nowadays tend to suffer from either stiff or overly sensitive controls, with the few gems striking that perfect balance. Dust: An Elysian Tail is such a game, with solid, responsive controls that allow you to move with precision and accuracy. Given that many of us were raised on the classic platformers, they have mapped the controls to make this a familiar and comfortable experience. The left analog stick moves you around, while the commands such as jump, attack, parry and activate Dust Storm are all intuitively mapped to the face buttons. The controls feel like second nature and the learning curve is very minimal, making this an easy game to just pick up and play.

The most noticeable strength of Dust: An Elysian Tail is the attention and care that has gone into the presentation. Simply put, this is a gorgeous looking game. The hand-drawn backgrounds, the vibrant colours and silky smooth animations rival the best in the genre. Each level you play through is filled with small details, such as movement in the background, animals passing in the foreground and even subtle touches to the characters. Dust’s cape flutters as he runs, the grass blades move in the wind and enemy animations take on an almost cell-shaded look at times. The environments are always creatively designed and wonderfully varied, making this game a visual treat on every level.

The beautiful graphics and smooth animation are also complemented by a stellar soundtrack, which provides an ambient orchestral backdrop to the various levels you traverse through. The music also has the perfect sense of flow and timing, being loud and bombastic during the more intense scenes, and quite and melancholic during the more serious moments in the story. Listening through a good gaming headset or surround sound system is recommended, as the music quickly becomes integral to the sense of imersion you feel while playing. There are few games on the Xbox Live Arcade that have inspired me to seek out the soundtrack, and this is most definitely one of them.

The voice acting is, on the whole, serviceable and well produced. Given the cartoonish undertones of Dust: An Elysian Tail, the voices are comprised of the usual high-pitched cartoon characters and hilariously exaggerated foreign accents. It suits the tone and style of the game for the most part, however there are some instances where it can become downright annoying. Fidget in particular is very talkative, so much that I often found myself skipping the dialogue segments because her voice started to grate on my nerves. The overly-ripe dialogue delivery also undermines the series nature of the story, making it difficult to take even some of the most dramatic moments seriously. This is not a weakness so much as a matter of personal taste, but I feel that toning this down would have been the right move.

For the majority of your time with Dust: An Elysian Tail, you will experience very little in the way of technical glitches and visual shortcomings. The animation is smooth, the platforming is fluid and the load times are minimal, which provides a relatively frustration-free gaming experience. However, the frantic combat and screen-filling chaos will sometimes prove to be more than the game can handle, with noticeable frame-rate issues and slow-downs popping up during the busier battles. There were also a few instances when the game slowed down noticeably due to an achievement being unlocked, or a friend notification on Xbox Live. These problems are not what I would consider to be game breaking, however they happen too often to escape notice.

Based on my comments above, you might think that my reactions to Dust: An Elysian Tail were mixed. In truth, this is a fantastic game that is marred by a few noticeable shortcomings, none of which would deter me from recommending it. The combat is stylish but ultimately shallow, the game lacks the challenge of some of the best platformers and the voice acting can have a “nails on a chalkboard” effect. However, taken as a whole, Dust: An Elysian Tail is a thoroughly enjoyable platforming experience that delivers in many key areas. There is no denying that this game has the look, feel and mechanics of a great platformer. While the aforementioned deficencies may hold it back from reaching its full potential, the high points are ultimately what will stand out in the long run.

Here’s the Rundown:

+ Beautiful hand-drawn environments and animations.
+ Fun and engaging platforming that is sure to please fans of the genre.
+ Controls in both combat and platforming are spot on.
+ Side missions and hidden treasure provides ample replay value.
- Inconsistent and often annoying voice acting.
- Combat lacks the depth of a great action game.
- The RPG elements don’t add significantly to the overall experience.
- Cartoonish delivery undermines the serious plot.

7 and 7.5 represent a game that overall manages to be worth a playthrough, just not worth the full price at launch. These scores are for games that are relatively good or even really good, but generally worth waiting for a sale or picking up as a rental when possible.

Dust: An Elysian Tail was developed by Humble Hearts and published by Microsoft Game Studios. It was released on August 15, 2012 for 1200 MSP ($15.00 US). A copy was provided to RipTen for the purposes of review.