Sunday, December 29, 2013

Indie-Cember: Dust: An Elysian Tail

Dust: An Elysian Tail
  • Publisher: Microsoft 
  • Developer: Humble Hearts 
  • Lead Designer: Dean Dodrill 
  • Release: 
    • XBox 360: 15 August 2012 
    • PC: 24 May 2013 
  • Genre: 2D Action/Adventure 
  • Players: 1 
  • Rarity/Cost: DLC, US$15
Over the course of Indie-Cember, I've tackled a lot of games which sought to do something innovative either with the way you play them or the way the make you think. And don't get me wrong, the world is far, far richer for their existence. But if you play enough of the more genre-bending games, sooner or later you hanker for something more familiar.

This game got a digital release published by Microsoft of all people, so you might assume it a stretch to call this "indie". In reality, it turns out that they only published the game because it won their contest at PAX East 2009. Apart from the music and voice-acting, it was made by only one person: Dean Dodrill, who had previously worked as an animator on the PC-based, 2D-platform-shooter games Jazz Jackrabbit (1994) and Jazz Jackrabbit 2 (1998). Despite the games starring a Mascot With Attitude, I hear they're pretty fondly remembered, and its fans certainly would've been dismayed when a third game languished in development before giving up the ghost altogether. ...Wait a minute, wasn't there some other two-game series with a potential third game that got cancelled? ...Huh. Well, whatever you were like, Jazz Jackrabbit, you have my solidarity.

But enough about the games that could have been, let's talk about the game that is: namely, Dust: An Elysian Tail. Get it, "Tail", because all the characters are people-animals. ...Am I sure I've moved on to the right game? I have? Oh, okay then, pressing on. You play as Dust, a sort of person-animal with mainly rabbit-like features and blue-green fur. At the start of the game, he wakes up in some forest glade with no memory of his life thus far. Oop, here we go, another amnesia plot. Actually, I for one have never been bothered by amnesia as a plot device, since it means you only learn as much as the protagonist. Maybe I just haven't encountered it enough for it to annoy me, but let's move on. Dust is soon greeted by two companions: Ahrah, a wise talking sword and your primary weapon, and Fidget, an orange Nimbat (read: flying fox-like creature), who dispenses magic attacks and snarky commentary. Wait a minute, a bluish talking animal followed by an orange flying talking animal? Where have I seen this before...? And why can't I stop making tangential comparisons?
Attacks like the Dust Storm trigger velvety wind effects.
Speaking of tangents, you may also have noticed the graphics by this point. There's so much subtle motion going on; "people"'s shoulders heave up and down as they breathe and trees sway in the wind, even during the in-game cutscenes which just show the characters talking. Certain attacks ripple the air in real time. And all of this runs silky-smoothly, even on my old graphic card which could barely run Receiver at minimum settings. Isn't it ironic that the in-game visuals look better than the animated cutscenes? Seriously, it's like one of Vanillaware's games, except without the overt sex appeal and suggesting that anyone who calls you out on it is gay. (I know that's not what you meant, Kamitani-san, but you've seriously got to think about what you sound like.) And, let me remind you, they were all done by ONE PERSON. To be fair, Mr. Dodrill used to work as an animator, but still: ONE PERSON!

So with the introductions out of the way, you get to play an action-exploration ("Metroidvania") platformer, with the world divided into multiple sections, and each section divided into many "rooms". Already we've addressed one of my major complaints about this sub-genre of games: its tendency towards backtracking. There are no hub worlds to pass through if you want to go to another corner of the world; just reach the exit at either end of a level, and you return to the map screen where you pick your next destination. Whilst there is still a fair bit of backtracking to deal with, especially if you go back to find new areas after unlocking new abilities, it still meets the hypothetical solution halfway. Even with all the backtracking, the combat system manages to stay fresher than in most other examples of this game's genre. Assuming you're using an XBox 360 controller, the X and Y buttons are used in various simple combos for attacking, although you'll probably just stick to your basic attack for most situations. And what do you know, there's even an "auto-attack" option where you can just hold X and keep attacking without having to keep tapping it. Fidget can also shoot magic projectiles with the B button, which on their own are weak, but you're supposed to combine them with Dust's "Dust Storm" technique (hold Y) so they expand into a thick swarm of shots which can juggle enemies for dozens of hits. Using these techniques, it's no trouble to routinely pull off combos in the hundreds -- there's even a sidequest (and Achievement) for finishing a 1000+ hit combo!

The combat system lets you rack up lots of hits. Case in point? This guy's combo is over eight hundred.
There are RPG elements in Dust, too: for each level you reach, you can put a point into Max Health, Attack, Defence, or Fidget (the strength of her particle attacks), and these stats can also be boosted through the wearing of equipment. Equipment may be bought, found, or built by finding blueprints and the materials needed to craft them. However, since both the blueprints and materials are randomly dropped by enemies, you might pick up the blueprint for an overpowered piece of equipment early on in the game; of course, getting the materials needed to actually make it is another matter. Even so, the game's not overly difficult; it's easy to not get hit, especially if you master Dust's parry technique (which itself is easy enough if you have auto-attack turned on), and save points show up every couple of rooms. On top of the main story, you can tackle sidequests by speaking to certain NPCs. These can be accomplished at any time throughout your journey, and you can take on as many at one as you like. There are only about 20 of these sidequests in the game, but together they contribute to a sizable adventure. I estimate it would take anywhere from 5 hours for a speed-run on Easy, to 20 hours for 100% completion; my first play-through was on the longer end of the spectrum. Yeah, for a game which only costs US$15 (or even less if Steam is having one of their world-famous sales). All those triple-A blockbusters which top out at 4-5 hours should feel ashamed at having been one-upped by something with a quarter of the cost!

The overarching story is forgettable, but the individual moments within stand out. For example, there's this one bit after I beat the first boss, where with its dying breaths it admonished me for all its underlings I had crossed to get to it. Never mind that said boss had torched an entire village beforehand. And this message isn't lost on our protagonists, either: it is immediately followed up with Dust and Fidget coming across some more monsters, and wondering if they should try to make friends with them instead. Of course, this doesn't work, so the game resumes as normal. This, mind you, takes place in the same game where Fidget sees an enemy walk into some spikes and comments that it should have saved first. So the story's modus operandi is to be serious when it needs to, and silly when it can afford to be. I haven't seen a respectful balance of moods like this since Avatar: The Last Airbender. And anything that can remind me of Avatar (no, not that one) or The Legend of Korra is doing something utterly, utterly right. Only this time, it's playable -- and how -- so, it's all good!

+ Simple but satisfying combat.
+ Uses and refines the "Metroidvania" design.
+ Gorgeous hand-drawn art and animation.
+ A story which knows when to be serious and when to be silly.

- The general story isn't as memorable as its individual moments.

Control: 5 Nimbats out of 5
Design: 5 Nimbats out of 5
Graphics: 5 Nimbats out of 5
Audio: 5 Nimbats out of 5
Value: 4 Nimbats out of 5
The Call: 100% (A+)

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