Review: Dust: An Elysian Tail

Whether you view it as a visually evocative action-adventure or as a testament to its creator’s talent and persistence, Dust: An Elysian Tail is a game worth experiencing.

Whether video games are “art” is a question that has largely been settled, at least by anyone whose opinion I value. These days, someone arguing that “video games shouldn’t be considered art” sounds like my grandfather arguing that rock and roll shouldn’t be considered music.

Fortunately, moving past the “games as art” debate allows us to address the sorts of interesting questions people have been asking about other art forms for years. For example, when judging the quality and worth of a work of art, how much do the circumstances of its creation matter? Should the value I ascribe to a work of art be affected by knowing who made it, or how they made it, or why they made it?

Of course, I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I certainly thought about them a lot while playing Dust: An Elysian Tail, a downloadable title available on Xbox LIVE Marketplace. Dust is an 2D side-scrolling action/adventure/RPG game, a genre more tritely known by the portmanteau “Metroidvania”. You play as the eponymous protagonist Dust, an anthropomorphic animal (or “furry”, to use a more socially loaded term) suffering from a conventional case of narrative-induced amnesia. Joined by a talking magical sword and some sort of flying squirrel-bat, Dust fights to uncover the truth behind his mysterious past, while helping the denizens of the world of Falana fight back against the forces of an invading army led by a genocidal commander.

Amidst the game’s enchanting sylvan environments teeming with stunningly animated fauna, you might think you’re actually watching Bambi… up until Dust starts murdering everything, that is.

From this synopsis, you might think that Dust is derivative, uninspired, and full of clichés, and were circumstances different, I might be inclined to agree with you. However, when I was at PAX East earlier this year, I got a chance to play an early demo of the game and speak briefly with its creator, Dean Dodrill. I learned that Dean (or “Noogy”, as he seems to be known on the Internet) created Dust almost entirely by himself, and that he was not an experienced game developer or computer programmer, but an artist. In 2009 he won Microsoft’s Dream-Build-Play competition, and since then he has toiled with single-minded devotion toward making his game a reality.

For some reason this interaction profoundly altered my perception of Dust. Instead of thinking about it as a product, I started thinking about what it meant to Dean, why he made it, and what it had taken for him to accomplish this task. My personal assessment was that Dust had been a true labor of love, a stunningly beautiful interactive experience created by a gifted animator to honor a group of characters and a fantastical world that he truly cared about. After only playing Dust for a few minutes, I had decided that I loved it, too.

When I first met Fidget (Dust’s “nimbat” familiar) I wanted to stuff him in a bag full of rocks and toss him into the sea, but godsdammit if he didn’t start to grow on me by the end of the game.

Mind you, I don’t want to give the impression that Dust isn’t a great game in its own right. After playing it in its entirety, I can say that beyond its breathtaking visuals, Dust does a lot of other things right, such as its well-balanced and highly engaging combat system. The main character fights in a variety of ways: with melee combos, by having Fidget (his sidekick) shoot projectiles, or by spinning his sword and/or himself into a whirlwind called the “Dust Storm”. However, ideal combat arises from the skillful interplay of these three elements. For instance, Fidget’s projectiles are greatly enhanced in scope and power when used in concert with the Dust Storm, but continuing this action for too long damages your character, requiring the intermittent use of sword attacks. Also, certain enemies have strong defenses that can only be lowered by parrying their attacks directly with a melee strike, but such enemies are usually accompanied by large groups of weaker foes that must be crowd-controlled with the Dust Storm.

Once you get the hang of the combat system, it feels completely fluid and highly satisfying… except on those occassions when some monster get in a lucky shot that stops your 1,000-hit combo at hit number 999.

In other ways, though, Dust runs somewhat counter to my tastes. Its story is rooted in a certain kind of traditional “good-versus-evil” high fantasy that’s never appealed much to me, especially when compared to the grittier, morally ambiguous (and admittedly trendier) settings of something like Dragon Age or Skyrim. However, like a Disney movie, the characters exhibit such an earnestness that even a stone-cold asshole like me can’t help but find them endearing. In particular, the interactions between Dust and Fidget, delivered via some highly respectable voice acting, are often engaging and charmingly funny.

On paper, I typically would consider Dust to be above average, but not truly spectacular— a “check-plus”, if you will. If it had been made by a larger studio with a sizable budget, I’d probably be giving it four stars. However, I can’t separate what I know about the game and its creation from my experience while playing it, no more than I can watch Braveheart while pretending Mel Gibson isn’t a deranged racist. Even though I don’t know Dean Dodrill personally, I can tell that that he deeply cares about the world he created and the characters in it, and a sense of that devotion stuck with me the entire time I played his game. Ultimately, the enjoyment of experiencing something that matters so much to someone else is probably the biggest reason why I loved playing Dust: An Elysian Tail. I hope that other people love it, too.

What Do You Think?