Dust: An Elysian Tail

A game by Humble Hearts for PC, Mac, Linux, PS4, Xbox 360, and Switch, originally released in 2012.
There’s a reason why the term “golden age” tends to be applied to the 16-bit era of gaming. That was the last time in gaming history where the bulk of the titles being released were in 2D, and the developers who had cut their teeth and honed their skills in the 8-bit era were able to embrace the freedom of more powerful 2D gaming hardware. Simply put: people who knew how to make 2D games were making better 2D games.

Eventually new hardware allowed for the creation of 3D worlds and the potential for many wonderful new gameplay possibilities, but it came at a price. We had to trade our beautiful sprite art for shoddy 3D models and our pixel-perfect gameplay for something more clunky and less predictable, and developers essentially had to go back to the drawing board as far as game design was concerned. In the long run, the transition has proven itself to be little more than a stumbling block. 3D developers are now making great 3D games, while 2D gaming has experienced something of a renaissance as of late. But there was one thing we lost that we never fully got back. You still see it from time to time, but as a commodity, it has become quite rare. That thing is abstraction.

Abstraction was inherent in the 8-bit era. It wasn’t possible to create realistic environments, believable worlds, or even fully fleshed out characters for that matter. Does the world of Donkey Kong look like any construction site you’ve ever seen? No. But it doesn’t need any explanation either. Girders, ladders, rolling barrels, and a big ape who has taken your girlfriend… That’s pretty straightforward. Do you remember the first time you set out across a vast landscape with limited supplies, hoping you could limp your way to the next town without being ambushed by some incredibly powerful monster? Did it bother you that you were moving one square at a time and that the game stopped every time a fight began? No, because much of the adventure was playing out in your mind rather than on the screen. Your imagination had to fill in the blanks for what the hardware could not deliver.

As technology made it possible to create graphics roughly in line with what we see in the real world, we found our bright colors and abstract visuals replaced with mundane brown-and-grey reality. But as gamers, we don’t want to replace abstraction with reality. (After all, we’ve got plenty of reality just lying around). No, what we want instead is realism. We want a coherent world filled with characters whose actions and concerns fall within the context of the world around them. It doesn’t matter if that world is real or fantasy, as long as it sustains its realism.

That is precisely what makes Dust: An Elysian Tail so special. It is not only a competent and beautiful game, but it’s also a 2D game that uses technology to create a non-abstract fantasy world whose story and characters and environments come together to form a contextually believable whole. You’re not simply running left to right because you’re meant to run left to right. You have people relying on you, a town on the brink of destruction filled with people who are trying to make the best of things, others who are lost, and still others who are actively attempting to bring about change.

What’s more interesting is that the motivations of the people have very little to do with you. These long-suffering folks had problems well before you came along. They are inherently distrustful of you and your motivations (and with good reason, since you’re an amnesiac with a questionable past) and they don’t believe that you’ll do anything but cause them more trouble. And while you do end up playing a key part in the overall events, the world is sort of tumbling along without you; it’s not expressly focused on your actions. Bad things are happening on a grand scale that cannot be comprehended by the simple folk who are trying to live their lives in the wake of continuing tragedy. They only see how their little slice of the world is affected and wonder if things will ever get any better. The strength of the narrative can be seen in the fact that the characters have a depth and perspective beyond ordering you to embark on various fetch quests.

To illustrate this further: Early in the game, you meet a stronghearted woman who at first dismisses you entirely. She eventually treats you with some kindness in appreciation for the aid you have given the village, but she definitely does not trust you. And, she’s not just sitting around waiting to see what happens… When the town’s water supply begins to dry up, she leaves to investigate. You set out on your own and discover that the problem is stemming from somewhere underground. A hole was recently ripped open allowing the creatures below to enter the village. As you investigate further, it seems that their water supply had dwindled as well, forcing them out of their natural territory to seek more (this is falls along the lines of the story in Bastion where the creatures you encounter aren’t necessarily evil, but are simply other beings scrounging for the last remaining resources). Your investigation uncovers another entire village of folks living underground, and they have their own problems, not the least of which is the reduced water supply. You eventually find the cause of the problem and take care of it, but that doesn’t magically solve everything. Irreparable damage has been done, strife continues, and a greater threat yet looms on the horizon.

As the player, you take the role of Dust, a creature without a memory who awakes in a forest to find himself greeted by a talking sword enveloped in blue flames. The sword is accompanied by some sort of flying orange critter named Fidget who has a high-pitched voice and looks like a cross between a ferret and a bat. The sword acts as a guide through your adventure as well as your primary weapon, and Fidget accompanies you with the intention of retrieving the sword once your quest is complete. The sword is always serious and somber, and Dust is fairly serious as well and a bit downtrodden. Fidget, then, acts as a foil to Dust. She is the timid one who is easily frightened, always has something to say, and is pretty much in cute-and-adorable mode even in the most serious of moments.

The game is an action platformer with heavy RPG content. There are NPC’s to speak with, quests and side quests (and a quest log to keep things straight), an experience system, materials to be collected for crafting, shops for buying and selling, armor and other items to be equipped for passive buffs, and a leveling system that allows you to customize your character’s health, attack power, and defense. However, the robust combat engine makes this more of an action game than something like A Valley Without Wind, and it doesn’t require the same level of resource management as something like Odin Sphere. The minute-to-minute gameplay is very much action-oriented, with the RPG content acting as a support system that rewards the player for defeating enemies and exploring the environment. You can play things like a straight action game if you like, but you’ll have a much easier time of it if you make an effort to acquire items that increase your attack and defense power.

The game also has some Metroidvania elements, with a handful of skills that allow you to backtrack and gain access to new areas, either as a form of progression, or to uncover hidden treasures. A minimap shows your surroundings and lets you know if a shop, save point, or treasure is nearby.

While Dust is not a terribly fast character, he is incredibly skilled when it comes to combat. There is a simple control scheme in place with buttons for primary, secondary, and projectile attacks, and there are some button combinations that allow you to string together combos. Examining the list of moves in the Options menu makes the combat appear to be very simple, but there are a number of key design choices here that make for a rewarding fighting experience.

First off, the combo system actually has some in-game value; namely, the player earns additional experience points for stringing together longer combos. This sets the game apart from other titles that have only a grade system or an exclamatory phrase to reward the player’s technical aptitude.

Secondly, you often have to deal with a number of enemies at once. There are lots of different-looking enemies, but they fill just a handful of behavioral categories. As such, you can see any enemy type and instantly how it will attack, what its range is, how much damage it can inflict, and how fast it can move. Then you get to do some crowd control by slashing your way through popcorn enemies with quick hits, unleashing more powerful attacks on moderate enemies, and performing hit-and-run attacks on larger enemies that can drain your health meter quickly. To add to this, most enemies are designed with significant telegraphs built into their attacks, allowing observant players to dash out of the way of these strikes and keep their combo meters climbing.

There are ground-based and air-based enemies, and you are equipped with both ground and air attacks. On the surface, this sounds like little more than giving the character a different animation when the attack button is pressed in the air verses pressing it on the ground. In actuality, you will often find yourself stringing a ground-based combo into an air-based combo as you fling enemies into the air, smash air-based into the ground, and generally send yourself flying around the environment with successive hits of the ATTACK button. This fluidity is achieved by causing your character to move toward enemies when attacking, allowing you to dash easily from one enemy to the next whether they’re on the ground or in the air. The end result is a combat system that makes it easy to string together combos and perform flourishes that are not only highly kinetic but also deal damage to multiple nearby foes.

Projectile attacks are also deceptively simple. Fidget has the ability to toss out a few little fireballs whenever commanded, and these have practically no effect on enemies. They do very little damage and aren’t even capable of killing most enemies in the time it takes them to walk over to you (although you do earn new projectile types as you play, and you can increase their power when you level up). So why even use them? When combined with your secondary attack, which allows you to rapidly spin your sword, you can send Fidget’s projectiles flying around in the air. After a couple of seconds, the number of projectiles dramatically increases, allowing you to send a firestorm at pretty much every enemy on the screen for multiple successive hits, which raises your combo meter even faster. The balance is that the individual hits are still pretty weak, and if you keep the attack going for too long, you’ll strike yourself, ending the combo and potentially opening yourself up to attack. Still, it’s great for clearing out hard-to-reach enemies and keeping for your combo active.

The spinning secondary attack is also used as a modifier during your regular combos and can be used to do things like spin your body around in the air to cause damage to enemies as you fly through them. You can even spin through multiple airborne enemies in order to reach hidden treasure chests that are otherwise unreachable with your standard moveset. And, if you have Fidget toss some of her projectiles just before you begin spinning in the air, you can attack multiple enemies in succession while also stunning them with projectile attacks. Again, there’s a limit to how long you can keep this going. Dust turns red and the screen shakes as he gets closer to reaching his limit, so it’s easy to tell when you should let off. However, the cooldown period is pretty short, so you can feel free to work in these secondary attacks whenever you like, as long as you don’t overdo it in one go.

As you destroy enemies, they will drop valuables. This includes gold, healing items, materials, and blueprints. Gold is pretty straightforward, and it can be used to make purchases in shops. Healing items are extremely valuable because – despite its RPG nature – there are no inns, and no other way to heal yourself than with restoratives (and with certain regenerative buffs later in the game). You can also purchase health restoratives at various shops, but doing so means that you’ll be wasting money that could be better spent to buy items that increase your attack and defense power.

Health pickups come in a number of food varieties, from fruit, to pretzels, to the humorously-named “mysterious wall chicken” that is dropped when destroying certain walls. The player is allowed to assign any restorative type to the LEFT BUMPER to be used at will during the game, which helps to keeps unnecessary menu-ing to a minimum. Skilled players should have no difficulty retaining a stock of healing items gained from enemy drops alone.

Blueprints and materials are a bit more complex, but not terribly so. Blueprints and materials are required for crafting, which becomes available once you meet the blacksmith. Blueprints tell you what type of item can be manufactured and what stats it will have when equipped. They also list the materials required to craft that item. If you have the necessary materials, you can pay to have the item crafted.

There are over 40 unique materials in the game, and they can be collected and stockpiled. In addition, each time the player sells a new type of material to a shop, that material becomes available for purchase in the future (after a bit of time has passed). So, if you’re short on your material requirement for crafting, you don’t have to go and hunt down a group of monsters that drop that material. You can instead purchase the material from the shop. Yes, it’s a bit more expensive to do it this way, but you’re essentially trading another farmable resource (gold) for the privilege of saving time. This keeps the pace of the game up and avoids miring the player in the RPG side of things.

There are numerous treasures to be found throughout the world. Red treasure chests require a single key to open, but keys are a limited resource and are hidden about as well as chests. The player must complete a button-matching mini-game to access the contents of the chest, but these are relatively simple and there is no penalty for failure. Chests typically contain a handful of restoratives, some gold, and the occasional blueprint or item. Some of the harder-to-find treasure chests have blueprints that allow for the crafting of incredibly powerful buff items, greatly increasing your strength, defense, and the power of Fidget’s projectiles. There are also buffs that increase the amount of gold or items dropped by enemies and allow the player to regenerate a small amount of health over time.

For an added challenge, there are a dozen well-hidden grey chests spread throughout the world, and each of these chests has 4 locks, which requires 4 keys to open. These chests contains a “friend” that comes in the form of either a Hyperduck (referencing the studio who did the music for the game), or any number of 2D video game heroes. These include characters from Super Meat Boy and Spelunky, among others. Some of the chests are even hidden in areas that are themed to the games they reference, which will give fans of games such as The Dishwasher and Bastion an extra treat. Finding any of the friends grants you a 5% maximum health increase, and you can go and visit all of your collected friends in a special area called The Sanctuary.

And for even more of a challenge, there are special challenge areas tucked around the world as well. In these challenges, players are rewarded for running a gauntlet and earning points for completion time, the number of enemies killed, and the number of lamps broken. The player is penalized for taking damage from enemies or the numerous fire-spraying traps that typically line these environments. The player is rewarded with rare items for successfully completing the challenges.

While there are certainly some challenging moments, the overall difficulty of the game is not high. Many enemies can take off a substantial chunk of your life bar, but this is balanced by the abundance of health restoratives and the frequency of checkpoints. So long as the player spends some time to collect or craft the necessary armor, he will rarely find himself overpowered through the sheer strength of his foes, even during boss battles. The player will also need to have a firm understanding of the basics of combat, but liberal use of projectiles and the spinning secondary attacks will see you through most battles.

The game’s overall presentation is extraordinarily well done. Environments are varied, spectacularly detailed, and enhanced with lighting effects to create a wide range of locales and moods. The player will traverse thick forests, pastoral plains, dark and dank caves, dying wastelands, glowing underground mushroom forests, snowy hilltops, and eventually burning volcanoes. Lighting, particle, and fluid effects bring life to the world with flowing water and lava, jets of flame and bursts of magic, blowing snow and rain, and a range of darkness, haze, and occasional oversaturation of light. A cohesive overall art design ties the world together while also providing environments with distinct flora and fauna. Furthermore, all cutscenes are fully voiced and have detailed character portraits with a number of poses.

Dust: An Elysian Tail was created by Humble Hearts, a studio founded by Dean Dodrill, who did the bulk of the work on the game in terms of design, programming, art, and story. The game had a long development period, and was showcased during Microsoft’s Dream Build Play competition in 2009, where it took home the $40,000 grand prize. Microsoft published the game.

The game’s music was created by HyperDuck SoundWorks, a music composition studio from Belfast, Northern Ireland that focuses on video game music. The studio has worked on a number of notable titles in addition to Dust, including Hollow’s Deep, Break Limit, A.R.E.S: Extinction Agenda, and BiteJacker.