Review – Dust: An Elysian Tail (XBLA)

Dust: An Elysian Tale Review
Xbox Live Arcade
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and Super Metroid have a near-permanent place in my all-time top 10. They, of course, spawned their own mini genre: Metroidvania. These games are 2D action titles with expansive maps that are only fully explorable after unlocking certain power-ups. They also tend to have RPG elements such as new equipment and leveling-up your character’s statistics. Shadow Complex for XBLA is another example, and is a damn fine game.

Dust: An Elysian Tale has shades of Metroidvania, though it’s a bit more straightforward. Before playing it, I was a bit turned off by the art design, despite the glowing reviews. Anthropomorphic animals aren’t my favorite thing ever, especially as the game’s tone seemed relatively serious. In execution, though, it didn’t bother me. Having different animal species is akin to having different races. The normal citizens are kind of like bunnies; then you have the almost Goron-esque (from Zelda) subterranean people; and finally, a later species is revealed.

Overall, the visuals are very impressive. It’s got an anime vibe to it, and the environments are diverse. You don’t have much repeating textures; every area feels fresh. The constantly cycling weather and lighting effects are subtle but help, too.

Dust has some above-average voice acting, though the music is understated at best. I especially liked Dust’s sidekick, Fidget. A flying cat not dissimilar to Ruby from Lunar 2: Eternal Blue, Fidget always has something witty to say without being overpowering. Everyone else has their own distinct voice and personality. It’s a bit clichéd, but I appreciate it.

Dust, the character, is one of those amnesiacs we so often play as in video games. Even his sidekick and his talking sword either can’t or won’t shed much light on his roots. He’s compelled to do the right thing and help out citizens in need, but is that really who he is?

The gameplay is basically hack-and-slash. Dust has some combos, but I essentially spammed the two strike buttons. Things open up when Fidget gets in on the action through some projectile attacks, and you master the parry move to dizzy enemies. You’ll be motivated to keep combos going, as it will directly affect the amount of experience you’re awarded. While it’s no Bayonetta by any stretch, I never tired of fighting bad-guys, who respawn when you return to an area of the map.

Eventually, Dust gets all the typical upgrades you expect from this type of game – slide moves, double-jumps, etc. These make combat a bit more fun, and also allow you to uncover every nook and cranny. Usually, though, these temporarily off-limits spots only lead to treasure chests or the keys used to unlock them. Sometimes you’ll get a cameo from other popular XBLA games, which was nice. I was motivated to get 100% of everything (116%, according to my save file), but you may not be. Dust took me 20 hours to play through – by far the longest of anyone on my friend list. Even if you cut out my backtracking and completionist tendencies, you’re looking at well over a dozen hours for a download game. And there’s very little filler.

Equipment is handled smartly. You can outright buy things from vendors, or get loot drops from enemies. You’ll also find materials; discover blueprints, and you can have the blacksmith combine them into new armor, rings, or other accessories. You won’t have to grind to get these materials, however. Sell one to a vendor, and they’ll start to stock them at all shops.

Dust wasn’t very difficult. I died a couple times in the first 10 hours, but after that I usually felt overpowered for anything I came across. There are some cheap enemies that will blow up and cause massive damage if you don’t skirt out of the way. Later enemies will also parry your strikes, but they’re still not too tough to take down. But again, I never tired of fighting and was pretty tied to the game. It’s always a good sign when I’m hesitant to finish a game because I want to keep things going.

It’s funny: I could see Dust as a SNES title, provided the production values were severely diminished. It would have fit right in amid Rocket Knight Adventures and Actraiser on the 16-bit machine. But we have the benefit of being able to get it for around $15 on Xbox 360 with all the bells and whistles of this console generation. I suggest you do just that, and enjoy one of the best download games yet.

Final Score 4 out of 5

Genre Awards: Turn-Based Strategy

In my last post, I started my series of “Genre Awards,” where I herald the all-time best games in various genres. My first awards went to my picks for the best fighting games. I went back and played a couple hours of Street Fighter Alpha 3 after writing that, by the way.
That genre represented the brawn; this is the brains. I’ve been a fan of turn-based strategy games for a very long time. RTS can suck it as far as I’m concerned, but getting to plot out your moves in as much time as you want for maximum benefit really resonates with me. It’s an extension of chess and checkers. One of my favorite early gaming memories was playing Tunnels of Doom on the family Texas Instruments computer. On almost every console, there has been a tactical killer app: Military Madness on TurboGrafx, Shining Force on Genesis, Fire Emblem on GBA. Speaking of Fire Emblem, a new installment just released on 3DS, Fire Emblem: Awakening – which is testing my no-game-buying vow something fierce. Here are my personal overall picks for the 3 Best Turn-Based Strategy Games!

BRONZE: King’s Bounty: A Conqueror’s Quest (1991, EA, Genesis)
I was still a tactical n00b when I grabbed this game from the packed shelves at Sunset Video. I took it home, and was thrust into a world full of minions and monsters, large areas to explore, and the equivalent of digital dodgeball: my team of dudes on one side, the enemy’s squads on the other. I rented that game many more times, until I finally talked the proprietor into selling it to me. I still have it.
Usually, I don’t like when these kind of games give you disposable units that don’t level up (see Advance Wars). However, in King’s Bounty, you’re free to recruit as many Dragons, Druids, or Orcs as are available. Whether they listen to your commands is another matter. Have your Ghosts lay waste to a bunch of Peasants – their numbers go up one for each kill – and they may mutiny against you.
The overworld aspects were sweet, too. Every game has randomized treasure placement, and the overall quest has a different location every time you play. It’s those type of replay elements that made it so great for me. I know that it was on Apple and PC first, and few realize 3DO’s PS2 game, Heroes of Might & Magic: Quest for the Dragon Bone Staff was literally the same game as King’s Bounty, but given a fresh coat of paint. Additionally, King’s Bounty: The Legend is in my collection; I just haven’t bothered to install it on my PC. It’s going to be tough to topple the 16-bit classic.

SILVER: XCOM: Enemy Unknown (2012, 2K Games, Xbox 360)
If you’ve read this blog much, you aren’t surprised to see XCOM make the list – though you may be surprised to see it didn’t take the gold. After all, I declared it my Game of the Year for 2012.
Because I’ve extolled its virtues so much, I won’t repeat myself here. Suffice to say this is an amazing strategy game which gives you a lot of ways to play, an emotional connection to your soldiers, and a perfect balance of gameplay. Also, I recommend reading Polygon’s excellent story on one designer’s quest to revitalize this franchise. I really need to check out the early XCOM games – which, of course, I own thanks to a couldn’t-pass-up bundle for like $5.

GOLD: Disgaea: Hour of Darkness (2003, Atlus, PlayStation 2)
This game was placed upon my desk very near the end of my 4-year career at Game Informer magazine. It was easily one of the best games I ever got to review in that mag’s pages. I wanted to give it a 9 – it definitely deserved it – but my editor-in-chief told me a game with that poor of graphics could not score so high. I wonder if he ever played it.
Anyway, Disgaea: Hour of Darkness is hilarious. A child demon overlord wakes up and finds his father dead and his kingdom made up of slackers. He’s pissed! His one remaining vassal is only out for herself, a meek angel is out to kill him, and nobody takes him seriously. The writing and voice-acting is top-notch – a feather in the cap of niche-game importer extraordinaire, Atlus.
But this isn’t Best Story, is it? The gameplay here is so good, I struggle to accurately describe it. Everyone and everything has depth and can be upgraded. Heck, every item has a 100-floor dungeon inside of it, should you feel so inclined. You can throw minions for better positioning, gang-up attacks are awesome, and new elements are constantly rolled out.
I played over 100 hours of Disgaea. That’s more than I played every other NIS-developed strategy game combined – including Disgaea 2 and Disgaea 3. So yeah, I think it was worthy of a 9 out of 10.