Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Dust: An Elysian Tail - An Action RPG That Shouldn't Be Missed

In the midst of highly anticipated AAA games and mass media attention to certain titles, there is occasionally a game that you happen to hear about that has managed to elude the public conscious, but the look of the game and the ideas behind it are enough to draw you in; for me, Dust: An Elysian Tail is one of those games. An RPG developed by Humble Hearts, aka former Jazz Jackrabbit animator Dean Dodrill, what drew me in to Dust was the fact that, aside from the voice/sound recording, and apparently some plot details, the entire game was made single-handedly by Dodrill. This and the art style lead me to play a demo of the game on Xbox 360, which in turn made me even more interested in the game. While I had intended to try and save enough money to purchase the game, in the end I took advantage of a flash sale on Steam that I happened to see while inspecting a Duke Nukem bundle, thus saving half of what I would have had to pay otherwise (what cinched it was 360 controller support on the PC version). After weeks of play, including a break I had to take from it due to Comic-Con, I feel satisfied with the end product, though I did encounter a couple of problems along the way.

In a place called The Glade, a mysterious sword arrives at a body on the ground, telling it to wake up. Once the figure gets up, he seems to have no recollection of who he is. The sword, Arah, tells the figure that his name is Dust. As Dust is getting used to the idea of a talking sword, an creature named Fidget (who is later revealed to be a Nimbat), swoops in and requests Arah back, explaining that she is the sword's guardian. Arah explains the situation to Fidget, who agrees to join the sword and Dust as they set off on a quest. Little does Dust know just what he has gotten himself into as things quickly become more complicated.

Pictured: Dust holding Arah

The story of Dust, written by Dean Dodrill and Alex Kain, is actually very well-written, in fact having a lot more depth than I expected there to be (not that I expected none). As Dust explores the world he is in, friendships are made, lives are lost, and questions are answered. Much of the conflict surrounds the mystery who exactly Dust is, and this even plays into the final conflict with the main villain. The story is written such that you get a very good scope of what's going on in this world, playing with your emotions up until the very end. The plot is this game's biggest strength, and it is one of the best stories I have seen from an indie game.

I also enjoyed the game's art style, especially in the character designs and backgrounds. The designs of the anthropomorphic animal characters can definitely make one think of Jazz Jackrabbit 2, assuming they are familiar with the series, but regardless the way they came out seems to suit their environment. Even the enemy and wildlife designs are amazing, even when the generic enemies get kind of ugly at some points (they never get cringe-worthy, unlike God of War: Ascension). The environments are simply gorgeous, ranging from beautiful grasslands to dismal volcanic areas. Dust definitely has a unique art style that works for it, and is a good example of Dodrill's talents as an artist.

The scenery of this game is very nicely done.
Before I get into the game mechanics, I want to point out that, while the characterization is very good in this game, I know that there's sort of a broken base regarding the character Fidget, one side arguing that she's annoying, the other that she is a likable character in her own right. Personally, I find myself more in the middle, though more leaning towards the latter. While I can see why someone would find Fidget annoying, I didn't really have that much of a problem with her, though I think that's mainly because I find her adorable.

Pictured: Fidget, a Nimbat
Moving on, while I don't really play many RPGs, Dust has some good game mechanics that would satisfy any RPG fan and give a newcomer a good idea of what an RPG is like. One of the main mechanics is being able to Level Up after gaining enough Experience Points (EXP), usually done through combat. As you Level Up, you become stronger and enemies become much easier to take down. While this is more of a general mechanic for RPGs, I decided to mention it because it still holds true for this game.

The combat isn't very deep compared to other RPGs such as the On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness tetralogy, but it does provide enough variety to not become tiring. Rather than having to worry about magic or summons or whatever, all you really need to do as swing your sword, Arah, at an enemy in order to deal damage to them. However, if you want your experience to resemble less of a hack-and-slash, you can also spin Arah, in a move called Dust Storm, to take on multiple enemies at multiple angles, or you can use the spin to your advantage to draw items dropped by enemies closer to you. You can also command Fidget to fire a projectile, which can also be manipulated by the spin move to increase its power; you might not find yourself doing one or the other very often. As you advance through the game, Fidget learns more options for her projectile attack, which are changeable with the right bumper on a 360 controller, leaving up more options for attack. Fidget's projectiles are also tied to an energy meter, though since I played on Easy, I'm guessing that on higher difficulties it doesn't refill so quickly.

An example of combat.

You can also increase your power further by equipping items, namely pendants, rings (one on each hand), armor, and augments. Your sword will always be Arah for the entire journey and anything you equip will not change Dust's appearance, but these equips can come in very handy as you increase stats such as attack, defense, and luck (among others). Another important thing to look out for is food, as consuming edibles can increase your health when you're in a jam, among them fruit, cupcakes, hot dogs, and even burgers, and many more; food can also provide certain benefits, such as curing poison or saving you from being burned. You can also equip food for easy access via the left bumper on a 360 controller. The health benefits of food may become near useless once you find items that can let you regenerate health, but it's good to have some food on hand in case things get really messy.

Some items cannot be equipped, and these are used for other purposes. For instance, you can collect items known as Resonance Gems, which allow you to open Resonance Gates of the same color (one for each color of the rainbow) as long as you have the respective Gem on you. You can also collect Treasure Keys to use for opening chests, at which point you must complete a small minigame before it can open; once these are opened, they can very rewarding. There are also 12 cages scattered throughout the land that each require four Treasure Keys to open, as opposed to just one for the regular chests. The minigame is a little more challenging here, but when you open them you get to rescue one of 12 friends representing characters from other indie titles, including Gomez (Fez) and Meat Boy (Super Meat Boy) just to name a couple.

Some items dropped by enemies, aside from food, can also be materials for use in item crafting via blueprints acquired through chests and enemy drops. Once you have enough of the right materials, you can craft an equip-able item so long as you are near or have contact with a blacksmith. Crafting also costs money, but once you are able to make the item, it can be worth it. My only complaint about this, however, is that it's not exactly easy to get rid of blueprints unless you have the money and materials to make the items with, and unless you just want to make items for the sake of getting rid of the blueprints, those blueprints are basically just going to stay there in your (bottomless) inventory until you get rid of them. Fortunately, you can also simply buy the item from a nearby shop when it is available, and a few times I have crafted items simply so I could sell them for more money later.

An assortment of armor you can buy in the shop, along with other necessities.
The game also has a sort of light puzzle element to it, which is something I liked. Often to get to certain treasures you have to figure out how to deal with an obstacle, such as glowing walls that can only be destroyed by exploding fruit or timing jumps right on moving platforms, and the more abilities you have, the easier it is to figure out how to access more areas of the game world. While some of these environmental puzzles are much more difficult than others, it's often rewarding once you are able to figure them out. On the subject of abilities, as you advance during the game you come across orbs that, once touched, give you a new power to expand your move set, including the ability to double jump or slide to name a couple, which open up new possibilities in previous areas every time you get a new power. You can also save whenever you come across a save point (larger areas have multiple save points), which can even refill your health when you really need it.

Like many RPG's, this game also has its own share of side quests, some of which encourage you to explore the game world further than you might have on your own. The difficulty of each side quest has a good range, even on the easier setting, though some of the tougher ones may require a guide (I admittedly used one on a couple of quests, but otherwise managed on my own). What I thought was interesting about these side quests is that a couple of them in at least one instance actually fed into each other, and at least one was even tied into the main storyline, both cases actually seeming more natural while expanding on the game's setting and characters.

Lastly, on the audio side of things, the quality of the voice acting is very good, as each actor shows off a good range for their respective character, emotional or otherwise, especially from the main characters. This helps tap into the emotions of the player at certain points, some of which can be real tear-jerkers (including the ending). The soundtrack is also very nicely orchestrated, with fitting background music for each stage and very emotional music during emotional moments in the game. Overall, the game has a very nice audio quality to it.

Tell me you don't want to hug her right now.
Now, while I did like the game, there are some things that brought my experience down a little, if only slightly. A more minor complaint, probably borderline nitpicking, has to do with the shops and save points. Occasionally I have come across one of these that seems to take a few seconds before I am even able to use them, making me think as though the shop are save point only seemed to work at times when it wanted to. To me this marred the pacing of the game a little bit, especially during the climactic portion of the story, but I learned to deal with it as I went. A bigger one, however, has to do with the pre-rendered cut scenes. Don't get me wrong here, I think they're beautifully rendered, but I just couldn't fully appreciate or become impacted by them because, for whatever reason, the top half of the cut scene was completely cut off, which really annoyed me a little as I watched them. I'm not exactly sure what caused this glitch to happen, but I braved through them anyway as I watched; I still at least had enough of an idea of what was going on in order for me to feel impacted by the major events these scenes presented. Fortunately, I was able to get an idea of what the rest of the scene looked like after viewing a few screenshots on the internet post-game.

This last complaint doesn't have anything to do directly with the game itself, but rather the service through which I was playing the game: Steam. Recently, in case you haven't heard about it yet, Valve decided to incorporate a trading card system into Steam, though how exactly these cards are acquired during gameplay is beyond me. During the game I somehow got a total of four cards, in sets of two. As I got them, I looked at them out of curiosity. One of these cards, however, spoiled a major twist in the game for me! Obviously I won't disclose which card it was for the sake of people who haven't played the game yet, but still I tried to forget about that twist until it actually occurred in-game, managing to block it out enough so that the twist still had an impact on me (fortunately, I didn't get a good enough look at the card in question, but it was still enough to affect my experience). What I'm saying is, if you purchase this game through Steam, do not look at any trading cards you might get before you finish, since they may end up spoiling the game for you.

I thought I could trust you, Steam!

In the end, Dust: An Elysian Tail is an amazing game that should not be missed, even by people who have little to no experience in the RPG genre. It's not as long as most RPGs can get, but it's still gets pretty lengthy once you try and explore everything. It has good music, amazing art direction, and a very well-written story that will keep you invested for hours as you uncover more secrets about Dust and the world he inhabits. RPG fans should definitely check this one out, while newcomers to the genre should try this game out, if only for the character-driven story this game presents. Dust: An Elysian Tail was enough to keep me playing until the emotional climax at the very end, and I can't wait to see whatever Humble Hearts does next.

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