Dust: An Elysian Tail is an independently developed game that was published by Microsoft last year. Developed by Humble Hearts, I just recently got around to playing it, and am here to tell you that… well, before I get ahead of myself, let’s do this in the usual format.
I’ll specifically say the combat animation. Dust: An Elysian Tail has great looking combat animations. Everything is fluid and the sound effects go with it perfectly. All in all that part of the game is very well done. I mean, take a look:
So, it looks pretty good at least, right? That’s a good start for a combat-platformer.
Combat… Kind of
So, how does the combat hold up mechanically? Well, there were parts that were pretty good actually. There are three and a half primary actions that you can take while fighting. Mashing your standard attack, obviously, being the first. The second action being that you can execute special “combos” by pressing the Y button (if you’re using an Xbox 360 controller) after a certain number of regular attacks. This works pretty well because it actually requires some specific execution. You can’t just mash attacks and throw your combo button in wherever you want. That would result in something sub-optimal. The fact that you have to be intentional in your combos makes the game pretty fun at first.
The third action is being able to channel your spinning wind move. This is used in a variety of ways, but can’t be channeled indefinitely. Lastly, your companion Fidget can toss out a number of spells that hurt enemies and have dramatic effects when combined with your spinny-wind channel deal. All in all, the actions are a variety and allow for the possibility of complex combat. All of this makes for a strong foundation off which to build.
Platforming… Kind of
There is also a fair bit of platforming in Dust: An Elysian Tail, which was usually done pretty well. You’re given the ability to dodge roll (or air-dodge, as it worked while jumping) and often platforms and enemies were placed with enough intent that dodging would move you just far enough that you ended up right where you should be (say, between two bunches of spikes, or from one tiny platform to the next). This feels pretty gratifying. People like being able to predict what’s going to happen, and knowing that I was going to make each jump by dodge rolling ended up feeling viscerally satisfying. I was doing more than just jumping and what I was doing was directly leading to a successful platforming execution.
What I’m saying here is that Dust: An Elysian Tail has a lot of good fundamentals. Combat has a good crunch to it. It feels good because the animations and sound effects are top-notch. The combos are fun. You can navigate the world in fun ways.
However, we haven’t gotten to any of the short comings yet…
To get this out of the way, the Character art stood out to me in a really odd way. I mean, look at this combat scene with the actual active sprites:
Cool effects, cool animations… they’re fun to watch.
Now look at this goober:
The actual character art is just such bland anime. You’ll understand it more if you play the game, but when the characters speak, these up close shots are just poorly animated, poorly designed, and honestly just poorly drawn. They just look so… amateur. Which was really weird given the fact that I enjoyed the actual sprites as much as I did.
Now into where the game really suffers. Dust: An Elysian Tail actually has a fair amount of variety on the surface. The underground caves are different from the forests and not just in their visual design, but in what the players are asked to do. Caves have spikes that damage the player if they mis-time a jump, whereas a forest bit might just have the player fall out of a tree (losing progress, in that they have to climb back up there). This was alright, but honestly, there wasn’t enough fundamentally different things to do. Platforming was always a game of simply dodge rolling from platform to platform, with the consequences slightly varied.
Combat is even worse. If you put any amount of your growth points while leveling up into attack power, you’ll immediately see what I mean. Double check that video above and you’ll notice that despite all those flashy combos, most enemy health bars are depleted in one or two hits. That means that the combo system is essentially useless. That’s the underlying problem. Dust: An Elysian Tail sets up all these well grounded fundamentals and then never asks you to use them. There are no enemies that are better dealt with via one combo as opposed to another. No enemies that you have to really dance with. The closest thing is an enemy that must be parried by attacking just as it does, but even this is ham handed. Those enemies are instantly killed when parried, and no other attacks have any effect at all. What you want in a game is enemies that can be approached in many different ways, but have clever weaknesses that players can exploit. Dust: An Elysian Tail has two kinds of enemies: Ones that don’t care how you approach them, and ones that can only be approached in one specific way.
This is bad.
Tropes on Tropes
I almost want to group these last two together, but they’re actually two different things that failed in two different ways. Now, the gameplay itself wasn’t SO bland that it couldn’t have been carried by a great story. Except it wasn’t. It wasn’t even close.
This game’s over-arching narrative was about an amnesic lone warrior that’s the strongest in the world, chosen by a magic sword, to struggle with his vaguely evil past. All while he is oblivious to the affections of every woman he passes.
What I’m trying to say is that the story is the hyper-anime-ified equivalent of a 13 year-old’s fan fiction. I think the term might be “Authorial Insertion” or “Self Glorification”? Either way, Dust himself is as Mary-Sue as it gets. He’s a combination of every cringe worthy anime trope out there and it makes the game almost unbearable.
Dialogue and Voice Acting
The writing of a game is tied very heavily to the narrative direction, but they’re not the same thing. What the characters explicitly say is not the same as what is happening in the story over all. They are jobs that are generally done by different people. In the case of Dust: An Elysian Tail, they both fail miserably. Coupled with the atrocious voice acting, every bit of dialogue was a true test of will. There really isn’t much more to say, just watch this if you can. By the way, there are spoilers in the video, apparently. I could only make it 30 seconds in.