Dust: An Elysian Tail is full of surprises. The graphics, presentation, voice acting and art style are fantastic for indie fare. The gameplay, with its simple collection of combo strings, Metroidvania approach and mild RPG elements, is oddly addictive and compels you to see the game through to completion. What’s most surprising of all, however, is the whole game was designed and programmed by one guy. Not a bad effort at all.
For an RPG-like game, the story holds a wavering middle-ground, supported by some above-average voice acting and simple themes. Dust, the amnesic hero, and Fidget, his chirpy voiced sidekick, work through the 12-hour story at a comfortable pace. The bright colours, cartoonish presentation and animated characters give us respite from the dark and sombre tones of more demanding RPGs, and I welcomed it: it was easy to disconnect and just let the plot take me along for the ride, even if it was all a little hammy. The level art, filled with watercolour tones, is just as impressive, although it can interfere with some of the platforming elements that feature heavily in the game.
Between each section of dialogue lies a layer of action that is deceptively detailed. While it may lack the precision and finesse of other combo-string combat systems, there are enough moves to provide several options for attack. Button-mashing will only get you so far: the most effective combos require pauses and timing. Magical attacks, provided by Fidget, add offensive options that can be boosted to cover huge areas of the screen, providing effective crowd control over mobs of creatures. A stamina meter prevents the player from abusing these powerful attacks and keeps things interesting.
Character progression focuses on upgrading health, strength, defence and magic. The game imposes a moving cap on each upgrade path, only increasing the cap when points have been allocated to the other attributes. It encourages more balanced characters, but the artificial limits may frustrate some players looking to make a glass cannon.
Dust gains new abilities as he advances in the game, allowing him to revisit areas that were previously beyond his reach. There are plenty of sections that can only be accessed by a narrow crawlspace, or that are too far away for a single jump, and the familiar formula of backtracking to access these areas and gather loot works well here.
Inventory is also surprisingly detailed. Dust can collect materials from enemies, and sell it to the vendor so that the item can be stocked and purchased. Dust will only have the one weapon—the Blade of Arrah—but the materials can be used to craft items, such as armour and trinkets that provide buffs.
Dust: An Elysian Tail is a fine game that provides a fair challenge on the harder difficulty levels, but when most of the work has been performed by a single person, it’s a staggering achievement. It’s an inspiring example of independent development, and it’s well worth a look.