Dust: An Elysian Tail

Worthy World

Dust: An Elysian Tail demands respect and doles it out in kind.

By Anthony John Agnello • August 20, 2012

Dust: An Elysian Tail’s first instruction: Press X to wage war. It gets to the minutiae later. Most games have you wage war by default, but Dust has the courtesy to ask, a moving gesture before you’re forced to cut through a gang of faceless enemies, their village burning behind you. It’s hard to take the warrior you control seriously: He’s a blue, bipedal fox in a sedge hat. The temptation to make a furry joke is severe, but Dust’s taken pains to earn your respect with its first moment. It earns that respect in kind, slow and sure.

After that scene, the aforementioned azure fox man, Dust, is sleeping in a forest glade. He’s awakened by a chatty floating sword and its protector, the equally chatty flying cat Fidget, and told its time to save the world. Confused—wouldn’t you be?—and suffering from amnesia, Dust follows the sword’s advice and heads to the nearest town. The comfortable familiarity of magic swords and tiny sidekicks is useful here, easing you in after Dust’s stark beginning. It likewise eases Dust into the task of recovering his memory.

Dust: An Elysian Tail

The elegant flow of the early quest is mirrored by its look and feel. Dust’s characters and woodsy setting have the clean, bright look of old Disney films like Bambi. The swordplay strings together swift strikes with a maneuver called Dust Storm—press a button to make Dust’s sword a twirling blur, knocking monsters sky high. You can spice up the attack by tossing Fidget’s lightning bolts into the fray. There’s a rhythm to it, but it’s easy to grasp, and the game knows it. Dust actually asks his sword, “Why can I do these things?” The sword just tells him to go with the flow.

The world blossoms into a series of interconnected locales. At first there’s just the forest and the village, but the villagers send you into the mountains to hunt a monster kingpin, then into the caverns to find water, and on and on. Dust doesn’t waste time with monologues on Elysia’s history, it asks you to live in it, by exploring the countryside and feeling at home on repeat visits.

Instead of spelling things out, Dust implies its history. When you head off to meet the game’s blacksmith, you have to scale a grassy, windblown cliff. On the way you also climb across a Colossus Of Rhodes-sized statue of an archer; Elysia clearly has a history of war, but now there’s nothing nearby but a sleepy village. What happened? The mysterious implications of a bellicose past are a familiar fantasy flourish, but familiarity doesn’t breed contempt in this case. The more you feel like you’re a part of the world, the less you notice the game’s inherent silliness. The characters don’t come off as “animal people,” just people, and helping them is a pleasure as much as watching them suffer is troubling.

Dust: An Elysian Tail

When the game does offer up revelations—Dust’s identity, the source of his amnesia, his relation to the genocidal army up north—its gentle hand has set you up to take it seriously. A flying cat says she’ll call you her friend no matter what you did in the past. It shouldn’t hit home. In Dust, it does, because up to that moment you are single-mindedly unfolding a place, coming to know who lives there, its landmarks, and its rhythms. Experience instead of exposition yields a powerful bond in this game.

Dust’s single-mindedness isn’t surprising. It is, by and large, the work of a single person. Dean Dodrill made the game using the name Humble Hearts, an appropriate moniker given Dust’s spirit. It is unassuming and generous, but not a trifle, a world worthy of the same respect it shows when asking you to go to war.

Dust: An Elysian Tail
Developer: Humble Hearts
Publisher: Microsoft
Platform: Xbox 360
Price: $15
Rating: E10+

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644 Responses to “Worthy World”

  1. Brainstrain says:

    Oh, this looks lovely. Why no PC release D:

    • caspiancomic says:

      True to my word, someone said ‘Bastion’ and here I am. Anthony’s description of the quietly whispered exposition in this game reminded me of Bastion as well, which basically just means my desire to play it has reached fever pitch. Shame I haven’t got a 360.

  2. blue vodka lemonade says:

    My sister has a cat named Fidget.

    I’m pretty sure she doesn’t fly.

    • The_Misanthrope says:

       That cat looks pissed.  I’m pretty sure you could improve any scary movie by splicing that picture (puncuated by a blood-curdling scream) after each character death.

      • George_Liquor says:

         All cats look pissed. They all look like they’re about a half-step away from bitch-slapping you at all times.

      • blue vodka lemonade says:

         We’re pretty sure it spends its time at home alone (well, with one other cat) plotting the downfall of humanity. It’s the younger of two cats, and newer to the apartment, but completely dominates the older, previously more aggressive cat.

  3. Corey Norris says:

    Just finished this yesterday. When you see just how short the end credits are it really drives home the fact that this is the vision of essentially one man. There are no coding, art, or animation credits. Just the music and voice work were outsourced and all the writing is attributed to the director and one other person. It’s just phenomenal what this guy Dean Dodrill accomplished.

    Also it has a very satisfying ending something that’s sorely lacking in today’s market. 

  4. Marijn Lems says:

    Probably the best review I’ve read of this brilliant game so far – it does a great job of explaining how Dust manages to get its emotional hooks in you quite so successfully. 
    For my part (I finished the game two days ago), Dust is the best Metroidvania title in recent years, with excellent level, art, character and story design, a well written script and very good voice acting. 

  5. Spacemonkey Mafia says:

    There hasn’t been a single big-budget title in the last three years to make me regret giving away my 360.  The regret has solely come from XBLA games such as this.  Perhaps this will migrate outward in a year or so.

    • Girard says:

       My emotions over reading this review followed a strange arc. Initially I was all disdainful “Oh, it’s that’ Disney-looking furry game that looks like a platformer that calcified the the cracks between a million DeviantArt accounts.” Then I read the review as was all “Oh, wow, this sounds like it’s not just a solid game, but could be interesting and engaging,” and got excited. Then I got to the end and saw it was an XBox exclusive and was saddened (and also slightly relieved, in the way I strangely get when I realize a game can’t possibly end up on my interminable “to-play” queue…).

      • caspiancomic says:

         Yeah, when I saw the trailer in Heisler’s roundup last week I thought it looked like a mechanically promising but narratively self-serious diversion, but this review leaves me wanting to play it pretty badly. I wonder if it’ll ever pierce the membrane separating the XBLA from the PSN.

  6. Kevin_The_Beast_King says:

    This might just be compelling enough to drag me away from Trials: Evolution. Note to any 360 who don’t have it, go get it. Now. Even if you don’t like motorcycle games, the user-created levels have a truly astonishing variety. People have used it to create a rudimentary Street Fighter of all things.