Monday, May 12, 2014

Reviewed by: Jamaal Ryan

While Sony platform owners have been spoiled by free and timely-relevant games on a monthly basis through Playstation Plus, Xbox’s Games with Gold on 360 has hardly lived up to their competitor’s service. The titles available have generally been old, and likely already owned by long time 360 owners, serving only a selective few. Halo 3 and Gears of War are great games, but I’ve already played them, as is the same for millions of others. The exception comes every once in a while, like last month’s Deadlight and November’s Iron Brigade.

For May, 360 owners will have access to two more free games; one of which is Saints Row: The Third (available on May 16th), the wildly popular open world title that put the franchise on the map. But again, I’ve already played that game. However Games with Gold also gifted players with another little gem that many surely have managed to overlook, Dust: An Elysian Tail.

Dust: An Elysian Tale is a hand written love letter to the side scroller action game; it’s a passion project that has been impressively crafted by the one man developer Dean Dodrill.

Elysian Tale’s Castlevanian influence was immediately striking (or at least Castlevania is the strongest reference I can think of while writing this review), as much of its presentation and gameplay is firmly rooted in the Koonami classic. The soundtrack pumps with harrowing organs, dancing pianos and violins that, while not necessarily inspiring the image of cobble stones and stained glass, create an equally fantastical feel. Its committed 2D artstyle never falters either, ensuring that colors glow and the visual design is always expressive. I absolutely love how Dust always makes time for beauty. Lush meadows are no more majestic than dark caverns and menacing graveyards where you might miss that red rose resting on a tombstone.

Even outside of the context that this was a one man script (technically a two man script as the story was co-written by Alex Kain), Dust’s storytelling is surprisingly dense. Though I can never say the actual plot itself sets any standards, it does a commendable job in balancing its leading three: Dust himself, his companion Fidget, and Ahrah the talking sword. It also goes as far as to wasting very little of any other characters you encounter, including the merchant, most in which have a role in your adventure; main quest and side missions alike. This treatment is further elevated by the fact that every single NPC you encounter is fully voice acted. Dust does its damnest to realize its world, and it shows.

As you make your way through this 12’ish hour adventure, it becomes obvious that Dodrill fitted in some of his favorite video game trends in Elysian Tale, but not without adding his own twist. Much of the game’s secrets are gated behind areas in which would need revisiting with new abilities, you’ll be constantly swapping and crafting equipment for Dust through the game’s satisfying and approachable item-trade based economy, and platformer puzzles take unique shape here like when the game asks me to use Dust’s vortex generating ability, the Dust Storm, to pull floating illuminated objects to guide him through some of the game’s trickiest environments. But Elysian Tale’s biggest draw is its combat system.

The combo multiplier becomes the focus in battle, and I found that learning how to preserve it is the key to not just succeeding in combat, but accelerating level progression as well. Controlling Dust is a snap; side stepping and landing strikes with Ahrah is as responsive as any respectable action game should be, ensuring that any damage taken doesn’t feel cheap. While I stayed out of harm’s way to keep my multiplier from resetting, I used the Dust Storm to amplify Fidget’s spell casting to inflict rapidly successive damage to my enemies. Using this one-two-punch in sequence will easily shoot your multiplier in the hundreds, even the triple digits. What’s neat is that the higher your immediate multiplier, the more bonus experience you gain; and the more experience you gain, the faster you level up. As I made my way through Elysian Tale’s final stage, I leveled up five times before I reached the end boss. That’s awesome.

While Elysian Tale plays it safe and is rather conservative by design, there are some moments that sag throughout the adventure.

The amount of abilities that Dust acquires in this 12-13 hour game feel anemic. So much so that I often had forgotten that there were abilities to acquire right in the gut of my playthrough. It wasn’t until the end of the game when I ventured back that I had actually appreciated some of the new skills Dust adopted.

And though leveling up as frequently as every five minutes triggers an endorphin rush akin to leveling up in Call of Duty multiplayer, Dust became overpowered, making short work of boss fights that hardly live up to their theatrical entrances. Dust is at its best when juggling 5 enemies at once while half a dozen more take collateral damage; with the exception of the final boss fight, a single chatty opponent is reduced to little more than a foe with a larger health bar.

You can almost tell that Dust is a culmination of ideas from one individual, one that's incredibly fond of this genre. Both its story and gameplay have the focus of a single vision, but none feel sacrificed and limited as Dodrill accomplished what many dev teams with more man power haven’t. Dust: An Elysian Tale will be available for free on Xbox 360’s Games with Gold up until May 16th. But even if you don’t make it by that deadline, you shouldn’t pass up on one of the indie scene’s most impressive success stories. 

+ Beautiful 2D Art direction
+ High quality character treatment
+ Addictive combat system
-  Weak boss fights
-  Uneven ability acquisition


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