Dust has amnesia, an unfortunate occurrence for any man-dog hybrid but one that happens surprisingly often in the dangerous world of fictional heroes. He is soon assailed by a flying cat (a Nimbat) and a talking sword, before being told that he has to do something - save villagers, the world, baby animals, stuff like that - by a talking sword. Unfortunately, like its plot, Dust: An Elysian Tail is itself a vague game; there are hints at greater things, a better understanding of what it is really about, but this is hidden beneath a shiny veneer which never comes close to being removed. Whilst a joy to behold, and with spectacular-looking (but spectacularly easy) combat, the impression is given of a chaotic but enchanting adventure. The reality is somewhat different.
Frankly, the story of Dust is absolutely unfathomable and completely bewildering. As indicated, Dust drops into a world that is at once isolated, but then gripped by civil war, whilst at the same time terrorised by a manic warlord on a racial genocidal rampage (of rabbits, and moon-creatures, and all things cute and fluffy). Although notable for the fact that Dust: An Elysian Tail has been more or less made by one man, Dean Dodrill, this is not the only instance in the game where one feels the need for a producer over his shoulder with a big stick shouting 'NO DEAN, NO! ONLY ONE MORAL LINE. FOR GOD'S SAKE DEAN, FOCUS YOUR RPG ELEMENTS. DEAN? DEAN?! COME BACK!' Too often the game's elements are confused and unfocused, taking on far too much without really considering the practical implications. The story is a prime case in point; for all its attributes, morals, side-stories, asides, and warnings, one's prime reaction is – so? When are you going to get to the interesting part? Dust's inherent problem, really, is that it never does get to an interesting point.
Dust's combat system is a close as the game really gets to interesting. A mixture of hack 'n slash and projectile hurling, Dust uses his expert sword handling to smash through enemies and spin whirlwinds of energy balls and flames, thrown by flying the cat Fidget, who accompanies Dust in his quest. For an hour, the fighting is great fun, as you hack through an army of weird and wonderful creatures in beautiful 2D side-scrolling environments. And then, quite quickly, it dawns on you that there really isn't much more to combat at all. It doesn't progress, you don't get more powers, nor better moves – you must simply do as you have been and be happy with that fact. A few more features, a greater sense of development, hell, any development at all would have made the combat far more gratifying, rather than the wool-over-the-eyes system that it really is. The disappointing thing is that it is fun, and it could have been great. Although combos can be built up, there is no real sense that this achieves anything but minor satisfaction on the part of the player.
The same applies to the overall, exploratory gameplay. Akin to the classic scrolling adventures of Metroid and Castlevania, Dust follows relatively set paths with obstacles which require objects or special items to get past, or cannot be passed at all until later in the game (if you can be bothered). Again, although it could be interesting, this amounts to little more than fighting through one area before jumping through another; that's pretty much it, despite the pretence of discovery and adventure. The basic adventure took me a solid 10 hours, although better/more earnest gamers may get through quicker, whilst complete freaks could take many more hours attempting to find all of the bonuses and secret items.
Still, attempts are made to spice up the fair by bringing in various RPG staples to decidedly mixed effect. A point-progression system is in place for levelling up, the theory being that you can spread points how you wish. The reality is different. Don't expect a Witcher 2-style system here; you cannot progress one attribute further than others by one point, so there is really very little point to this system apart from giving the player the mirage of choice when there is none. Likewise, the world is populated by traders from whom you can buy items. While these are useful, and appear in the most unlikely of places, items are so plentifully attained by downing the hordes that there seems little reason for these to be so sporadically placed. For those more interested in combat rather than exploration, arenas have been included which offer the opportunity to take part in what are effectively obstacle courses, which upon completion enter you onto an online leaderboard. Although fun, the lack of mid-arena saving means that the player could complete several in a row, only to land on a flame and lose all their hard work; a frustrating lack of foresight on the developer's side.
Stylistically and graphically, Dust is an impressive and highly polished product. The hand-drawn style is sharp, detailed, effective and charming, with an extremely high quality of animation; it really does look the business. Backgrounds fade convincingly, whilst foreground characters and objects are well observed and distanced; a nice, oft ignored touch. Character models disappointingly lack personality and interest; it is hard to take seriously the massacre of one's family when the tale is spun by a talking hamster monstrosity relating it in the blandest of terms. This is carried on by the voice-acting, which is both over-acted and dis-interested at the same time (don't get me started on the helium fuelled annoyance that is Fidget), leading to unconvincing performances all round. The sound-scape is rather more impressive, with catchy tunes and Final Fantasy-esque jingles mixing with bass heavy orchestral moments to great effect.
Much has been made of the fact that Dust: An Elysian Tail is effectively the product of one man - Humble Hearts' Dean Dodrill - papering over faults which would otherwise be reported with a more cynical eye. With a beautiful graphical style and surprisingly good soundscape, Dust: An Elysian Tail is a delight for the senses. However, one cannot escape the sense that Dust is actually a rather superficial experience, using a spectacular looking (if not wholly spectacular to play) combat system to hide the fact that in reality it is a rather shallow adventure and, frankly, despite the myriad of features and themes, it isn't really all that interesting. There is fun to be had, although much of that depends on how much you're willing to put into it; a dull story, grating voice-acting and uninviting characters make it a hard sell on this count.
This review is based on an Xbox Live Arcade version of Dust: An Elysian Tail, supplied by the publisher.