Dust: An Elysian Tail. As a name it isn’t that great. It’s borderline forgettable if you know nothing else about the game at all. The name, along with the Korean-like lettering on the logo are what nearly caused me to skip this game entirely.
This concludes the critical section of this piece.
Dust: An Elysian Tail (PC)
Released May 24, 2013
Developer: Humble Hearts
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Review by Derek Petrarca, 7/8/2013
In the spirit of honesty and full disclosure, and in the interest of keeping this site more of a personal gaming blog shared by a few friends rather than a serious game reviews repository, it is important to state that I am fully aware that I am incapable of impartially reviewing this game. Dust: An Elysian Tail is the game that my internet friends and I used to imagine that we were playing when we used to roleplay in Furcadia late into the night. We played as anthropomorphic characters in a fantasy/sci-fi setting with a healthy amount of magic and the occasional steam-powered giant robot or space ship. The use of anthropomorphic characters, while it may seem odd to some, was ideal for creating a world full of diverse peoples, cultures and identities. It allowed for a population as varied and interesting as any epic fantasy novel full of Elves, Human, Dwarfs and Hobbits, or any science fiction epic packed with myriad alien races and cultures. A cartoon cat and mouse were just as different from one another in this setting as Aragorn and Legolas in their own. It was a setting that we liked and grew used to. Since then it struck me as a shame that nearly no serious, respectable and fun video games took advantage of a setting such as this one. The action and drama that we imagined was epic and rich but to there it was confined; Furcadia is little more than a chat room with slight graphical elements.
And then Dean Dodrill spent three and a half years making Dust: An Elysian Tail specifically for me, or so it would seem. The realization that the world he had created so mirrored the one in which I had spent so many years of my youth was what catapulted this game from the countless other sale games on Steam that so often come and go. I came extremely close to completely passing this by. It wasn’t until the third or so look at the logo that I noticed the ears coming out of the hat of the title character. I am extraordinarily thankful that I did.
The obviously striking aspect of this title is the artistic style. From the cutscenes to the idle character animations Dust is saturated with bright, vibrant, living atmosphere. In a day and age when so many independently developed side-scrollers sport retro or pixel art it is astounding to encounter a game that looks like this one. Indie legend Bastion had set the bar very high for a striking, hand-painted art style and Dust has somehow gone above and beyond it. Every level is literally a work of art; a living painting in which you are free to roam and explore. You’ll keep waiting for the visual aspect that brings the experience back to Earth; surely not everything can be held to such a high artistic standard. In fairness, a few of the moving portraits for some of the side characters are maybe on the higher end of what you’d find on fan forums online and, as such, are slightly awkward in motion. For the most part, however, every side character is uniquely crafted and brought to life with as much care as the main character and the environments. The same goes for the enemies, the attack effects, and the very menus. Everything bears a hand-crafted and exceptionally polished visual style that catches the eye and simply will not let it go.
The sound design by HyperDuck SoundWorks is similarly top-knotch. The musical score is perfectly suited to the variety of the environments. The sound of the impact of your sword against an enemy or the whoosh of your blade during the Dust Storm attack is crisp and satisfying.
Surprisingly for an indie game Dust also features a full voice cast. Every single line of dialogue is spoken by a fairly large vocal cast. While they clearly could not hire Nolan North and Jennifer Hale for this project the talent that they showcase is surprising. None of the dialogue even once came across as forced or degraded in quality, though apparently all lines were recorded remotely on microphones of various quality. This lends a tip of the cap to the sound designers that cleaned it all up and made it qualitatively consistent. The two most impressive performances, appropriately, come from the characters Dust and Fidget. The former sidesteps what could be an easily stereotyped performance of the dark, mysterious hero and makes it his own, giving the titular character soul and range. The latter, Fidget, miraculously walks that line of cute and endearing without ever crossing over into the realm of annoying or obnoxious. It is a true feat.
As far as plot is concerned Dust starts off fairly humble and unassuming. Though some may roll their eyes at the introduction of the title character as an amnesiac protagonist I would advise them to play on. At risk of minor spoilers, it is quickly revealed that though the main character has no memories of who he is or what he has done it is not quite accurate to refer to his condition as amnesia. Before long, the three main characters are caught in a world of conflict between the warm-blooded races that currently dominate Falana and the Moonbloods, a race of lizard folk that have been subjected to an awful genocide at the hands of a borderline fascist warm-blooded regime.
This gritty plot, shocking in its gravity, is delivered with such compassion and perspective that it never felt dour or bleak simply for the purpose of being dour and bleak. A mature game, this title proves, is not just one that deals with mature issues such as war and racism but also handles them in a realistic and meaningful way, peppered throughout with real moments of levity and comfort that give the more difficult to handle material real weight and context. The writing of the companion characters and NPCs is sharp and, with the way that it is delivered, creates the feeling of a very real, living place. Lore from the history and culture of Falana creeps in around nearly every interaction but it never feels as if it is being shoved down your throat. There are notes and documents to be collected that contain snippets of backstory but they, like all of the other secrets and collectibles of the game, are fun to hunt but never so obscurely hidden that they are frustrating to seek. Everything feels balanced and polished to an absurd degree.
The combat, which is very much the prominent gameplay element of the title, is solid, responsive and satisfying. I personally played using a 360 game pad and would argue that this is the optimal way to interface with the game, though I have heard that the mouse and keyboard controls are superbly implemented. The leveling system adds a layer of RPG elements to the action that allow you some measure of control over the distribution of Dust’s perks and powers, though there is a min/max system in place to prevent the maxing out of one stat too drastically to the detriment of others. The rate at which you level is consistent with the difficulty curve of the game; I had just reached level 50 during the final level of the game and still had a few more skill points to earn if I had wanted to grind out a few last levels. There is always a feeling of growth and progress. Even when occasionally backtracking in order to hunt for hidden areas and items, much like you do in other Castlevania-inspired games, there is a satisfying sense of steady growth as you still gain experience from the enemies that you now slay so easily though they provided a challenge 20 levels ago.
There are a number of special challenge rooms scattered throughout the game that charge the player to complete an obstacle course of sorts in a given amount of time in order to earn a rating of 1-4 stars. Normally I am the first person to completely ignore these types of rooms but the challenges, though frustratingly difficult at times, felt so fair and engaging that I found myself seeking 100% completion on them all. The satisfaction in achieving it was incredible.
I never once tried to murder my companion. Let the gravity of that statement sink in for a moment. Like so many other terrible people my first instinct when paired up with a companion character such as Fidget is to take a swing and see what happens. That never even occurred to me in this game. Dust, Fidget and Ahrah (the talking sword) are such a unit that it doesn’t quite ever feel like you are playing as a single one of them but rather as a team of all three. The control over the combat system lends itself to this feeling. The mechanics back up the story, which backs up the atmosphere, which is backed up by the art. It’s as if every aspect of this game was perfectly sculpted in harmony with all of the other aspects of it. This doesn’t often happen in other games.
There is a good reason for that. Dust: An Elysian Tail in the product of one man’s vision: Dean Dodrill. Without going into the whole story, which is captured excellently in this polygon article, this game is the creation of a single person’s imagination and effort. Dodrill acted as both animator, artist, and programmer for this game, hiring out only for the sound design and voice acting. The world of Falana, all of the people and places within, and all of the ways that the character interacts with it… all of that came from a single source. There was no separation of duties where perhaps one team was charged with the combo system, another with the boss battles. There was no difference in artist between the character models and the backgrounds. It all came from the same place. The one man whose passion and talent brought him to work on this game for three and a half years straight almost alone. He alone knows the very soul of this game from the inside out and the crisp, streamlined gameplay attests to that fact every step of the way.
I would like to briefly mention a subject that I have found inevitably comes up whenever discussing this game on the internet. It is uncomfortable and I’d like to keep it brief and to the point. Many people, when celebrating all of the things that this game does so well, are quick to basically apologize for the art style. “Don’t worry. It’s not furry!” many YouTube commentators will point out. “It’s just animal characters but there is nothing sexual about it.”
Personally, to me, Dust: An Elysian Tail is a game perfect for the furry community and everything that I think is great about it. It is a massive shame that furry has become something that the masses seem to joyfully denounce as horrid and disgusting. It is just as much of a shame as it would be if someone had to preface talk of any shooter game with “But don’t worry! It won’t encourage you to shoot up a school!” or if they had to preface any game starring a minority character with “But don’t worry! It’s not about dealing drugs or being in a gang!” It’s offensive, casually used hate speak and I don’t like it and I don’t encourage it.
Dust is a furry game and if you like it you like a furry game. There is nothing wrong with that. It doesn’t have to mean that you love everything or even most things about the furry community. I certainly don’t. I think I was fairly clear in the opening of this discussion of what I personally enjoy about the fandom and setting. There is, however, something wrong with denouncing it simply because it is a furry game. That adds a layer of prejudice and ignorance to the discussion that I’m not comfortable with and should not be there. That is all that I’ll say about that.
As a PC port you really cannot do any better than this game. Rather than the 720p at which the original XBox 360 version ran the PC version runs at a glorious 1080p with full customization options including an FOV slider, the ability to remap the controls, colorblind mode, 10 save slots on top of the autosave slot and completely intuitive mouse-driven menus. These are features that AAA games, when ported to PC, are more often than not lacking. And this was created by one person. One person. It is unheard of.
Dust: An Elysian Tail is clearly a work of tireless passion and commitment and, quite frankly, too well polished considering its origins. It would be considered absurdly polished and well-crafted even if this had come from a studio of a dozen designers. It has a number of easter eggs that pay homage to the other famous indie titles with which it shares the stage. It is a game that somehow both takes itself seriously at the same time as it prods fun at itself. It is a mature journey with deep emotion and soul that made me laugh out loud on a number of occasions. It was insanely fun to play. It should be remembered as a classic of the action/RPG genre and, personally, it has made me very, very interested in whatever is coming next out of Humble Hearts. Most of all, Dust is a game that brought my imagination to life and gave me an experience that until now was restricted to my memories and thoughts. That is something no other game has ever done.