Dust: An Elysian Tail Is from a Future That Never Happened

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Humble Hearts / Microsoft Studios

Dust: An Elysian Tail is from the future, only one that never happened. A future where 3D never kicked 2D gaming to the curb. A timeline where 2D side-scrollers never vanished from the charts. Playing it feels like falling through a wormhole to some other gaming dimension entirely.

Yet here it is, as unexpected as it is irresistibly playable.

Okay, not totally unexpected. Its creator, Dean Dodrill — an indie animator who at one point worked on Epic’s Jazz Jackrabbit series — was already throwing attention Dust‘s way back in 2009, when Microsoft awarded an earlier version of the game the $40,000 grand prize in its annual Dream.Build.Play competition. Since then, Dodrill hand-built Dust all but solo using Microsoft’s XNA development toolset, prepping it for its debut on Xbox Live Arcade this month. That feat alone ought to win the guy a “stuck with it” medal.

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But no, he had to go and make the game brilliant, too — the sort of thing you’d get if you crossed Metroid, Street Fighter and Castlevania with an edgier version of Tiny Toons. There’s a decent fantasy story here involving a reticent, triangle-nosed cat who’s lost his memory and has to find himself, but it’s frankly subsumed by the lovely, labyrinthine area design, the marvelous artistry of Dodrill’s hand-painted levels themselves and the pitch-perfect combat as Dust, the eponymous protagonist, whirls through glades, villages, farms, sparkling grottoes, haunted houses, snow-caked mountain tops and broiling lava pits like a globetrotting kung-fu dervish. Think of it as the wuxia version of On the Road.

Humble Hearts / Microsoft Studios

So if you never liked the games mentioned above, chances are you won’t like Dust, which pays homage and then some. It’s about exploring areas linked right-left or up-down in little square blocks on the mini-map. It’s about navigating longer and shorter ledges you can reach as well as others you can’t until you’ve unlocked special abilities later in the game. It’s about backtracking to collect hidden items or unlock previously impenetrable barriers concealing who-knows-what. It’s about choosing to emphasize offense or defense fretting over each ability upgrade, and it’s about engaging in the sort of full-contact, ground-to-sky-and-down-again brawling you’d expect more from a Capcom fighter with “super” or “turbo” in the name.

At the outset, you may wonder why all the fuss. Dust wields only a talking sword — yes talking, but it’s the same, non-upgradeable weapon you’re stuck using through game’s end. You get a few multi-button attack combos and a handful of special abilities bestowed by a flying cat-bat named Fidget, who doubles as the game’s family-friendly comic relief. All told, it sounds like the sort of game you’d blow through in a few hours, tops.

But Fidget is where Dust gets interesting. She has up to three projectile attacks that by themselves wouldn’t startle a woodchuck. But combine those projectiles with Dust’s “Dust Storm” ability, summoned by tapping and holding a single button to conjure cyclonic winds, and it’s like blasting hairspray through a fire hose across a lit match.

Jump after deploying Fidget’s electric attack, for instance, then pivot back and forth with your gamepad’s thumbstick, and Dust becomes a horizontal tornado on legs of lightning, chain-frying anything in sight. Launch a fireball volley and Dust can transform it into towering death-rays, consuming enemies like the Washington-razing alien weapon in Independence Day.

“Dust Storm” also allows Dust to “fly” along whatever linear paths his enemies present — use this ability strategically and you can send yourself and your enemies soaring as your collisions drive you both higher, or use it to access out-of-reach areas by arcing through a level’s prepositioned foes. Pulling that stuff off expertly takes practice, but Dust’s response to your taps and thumbstick flicks is never less than hair-trigger.

Humble Hearts / Microsoft Studios

You’ll definitely need to practice given the game’s difficulty ramp-up (I played on the second hardest setting of four), ideally in the Challenge Arenas sequestered within the game’s levels. These let you vie for rankings to unlock special items and earn bragging rights, since the results are shared on public leaderboards. Enemies re-spawn and attack in throngs as you exit and reenter areas — first by ground and later by air, eventually harboring lethal attacks or posing special problems, like how to get through an area mined with explosive critters that vaguely resemble the Final Fantasy series’ balloon-bomb-things. By the game’s denouement, battles are deadly free-for-alls with zero margin for error, no matter Dust’s ability levels.

Sometimes the game blocks you from exiting an area with a temporary barrier, preventing you from advancing or retreating until you’ve defeated whatever’s pummeling you — a clever wrinkle that prevents racing ahead while mitigating leveling exploits. And the end area battles are appropriately puzzle-like, beating you mercilessly and forcing you to hone your battle tactics until you suss out the creature’s pattern or discover the appropriate counter-move. In fact the only criticism I’d level at Dust is that some of these battles felt a little too simple once you’d pulled back the curtain (the grand finale being the happy exception).

So here’s your chance to visit gaming’s future that might have been with one of the best-looking side-scrollers ever made for 1,200 Microsoft Points (about $15). It’s a triumph of animation and platforming that’s right up there with Michael Ancel’s Rayman Origins, and thrice as impressive given its comparably-nothing design team.

And you know that slightly annoyed, distracted, how-much-longer-is-this-anyway feeling you sometimes get playing games like this? I never felt that once in the 15 hours — 11 on the clock, three or four in retry mode — it took me to finish Dean Dodrill’s magnificent Dust: An Elysian Tail.

Version reviewed: Xbox 360

Score: 5 out of 5

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