Publisher: Microsoft Studios / Developer: Humble Hearts LLC / Platform: XBLA

Wrapping up Xbox Live’s current Summer of Arcade event is a game that I’ll admit was low on my radar.  After my initial excitement for the Tony Hawk remake and zombie platformer/old-school homage Deadlight, I really didn’t have much excitement for Dust because I didn’t know much of what the game was about.  Other than some brief trailers showing some flashy animations and bits of combat, I knew almost nothing about it.  But, if I’ve learned one thing through writing reviews for A Critical Hit!, it’s that the game you’re usually the least interested in ends up surprising you the most.

Dust: An Elysian Tail is a 2D platformer/slash-em-up with some light RPG and metroidvania elements, sort of like Dishwasher: Vampire Smile, or a 2D Bayonetta, where story and realism take a backseat to smooth animations and twitchy, tight combat.  Dust is split up onto multiple smaller areas rather than one large map, sort of like how Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia handled exploration in comparison to Dawn of Sorrow.  These areas open up as you gain sidequests or progress in the main story, and can be re-explored at any time, since over the course of the game you’ll gain new powers like a slide or the ability to cling to vines.

The shining point of Dust is the combat.  While there is only one weapon, and you don’t seem to unlock any new combos as the game goes on, the amount of freedom you have in slashing enemies to pieces is surprising.  You have a number of ground and aerial combos to string together, as well as different types of projectiles your companion, Fidget, can fire.  These projectiles can be supercharged by your “Dust Storm”, a sort of sword-twirling attack that makes the entire screen – as well as some background details – blow around like you’re in a hurricane.  It’s a neat effect, and really works well in conjunction with the combat.

Dust does have some RPG elements like an inventory system, various armors to equip and/or craft, and skill points you can distribute when you level up.  However, the way Dust handles these elements makes them seem more well-equipped to an action game, rather than just seeming like they were slapped on.  Gold is hard to come by and items – especially well-needed healing items – are expensive.  The gold cap of 9,999 is rarely attained, and even when you do happen to reach that cap you probably won’t stay there for long.  It really makes you think whether or not that shiny magic necklace is worth missing out on healing items for the next mission or so.  To balance this, you do get gold at a fast enough rate to feel like the game isn’t being overly stingy.

In addition to the gold situation, Dust’s combat can be particularly challenging, especially later on.  The game isn’t afraid to throw legions of enemies at you when it feels you’ve learned enough, and having to fight of waves of standard enemies in addition to enemies that can only be hit by projectiles can be a little overwhelming, but it never feels unfair.

Dust’s storyline isn’t particularly compelling, but it isn’t bad.  The characters have surprisingly good voice actors (for the most part), and a few characters – like Fidget, the companion I mentioned earlier – have some really nice dialogue.  Dust does have a sense of humor, with some references to other games found in some conversations (“Aah, I’ll buy it at a high price!,”) and some RPG or platformer tropes are blatantly called out by some characters, only to be seen as commonplace by others.  Additionally, some hidden “friends” can be found locked inside cages.  These friends are actually characters from other well-known games, and are fun to try and find.

Dust is a fun game, flat-out.  While I do have some small issues, like the overly-slow walking speed inside towns or a few difficult stretches between save points, these really didn’t have much affect on my overall experience of the game.  Dust’s tight combat and platforming will please fans of fast-paced action games, while those that just want to look at the wonderful art, meet interesting characters and explore exciting locations will still have fun on some of the lower difficulty settings.