Anthropomorphism is a topic of complete polarization for me. On one hand, I was raised on Thundercats, Ducktales, TMNT, and such and such, enjoying every second of it even to this day. On the other, things like My Little Pony and the bronies it has spawned completely incenses me to the point of maniacal rage. Dust: An Elysian Tail is wearing anthropomorphism proudly, as evidenced by the titles play on words. Part of me thought to completely avoid this, what could have been a total ooze-fest of cutesy drivel targeted toward the young, dumb, and full of.. Fur. My other half can't say no to a hack-and-slash inspired Metroidvania action RPG. So I dove in, and well, surprise surprise.
Dust follows the quest of a young man- animal.. Animal-man? The quest of a young manimal in search of answers. Our hero - aptly named Dust - awakens with a touch of amnesia and an odd couple of allies at his back: Fidget, a magically inclined flying cat, and Ahrah, a massive, sentient sword with a heart of gold. The merry band venture out on a quest of discovery, justice, and revenge. I realize how terribly campy that sounds, but bear with me here. The game also includes bipolarity, genocidal maniacs, and flying death machines. Ying and yang, black and white; duality. It's a key part of this videogame.
The big come up never looked so good
This is the part where I normally shoot off about how the game plays, but in name of spontaneity, we're going to talk design first, as it's what immediately roundhouses you in the face as you dive into Dust. I don't know if I've played a game as bold and bright as this since Bastion, still one of my favorite games in recent memory. With backdrops including forests, towns, mountain peaks, and volcanoes, you'll almost meditate away on the beauty of the world, before you realize you're air-comboing the gold out of some hapless wolf. My favorite scene found Dust running up the arms and shoulders of massive stone effigies dedicated to the army which has thrown the world into peril. You'd be hard pressed to spot a brown shade or any dark grays; the entire world is bubbling with vivid palettes like an oil painting thrown into a burning circus. It's always great to see the proverbial circus burn in a game these days. The animation blazes at a buttery 60 frames per, enough to make even the most dubious of animators cut their cynical mumbo-jumbo for a split second. I don't think I ever noted any dropped frames or slowdown, even while dashing through explosions to create a storm of swords worth 900 hits, and a song of ice and fire for the last hundo. Smooth!
The characters of this universe are drawn, by hand, like just about every other inch of the screen. The Korean influenced models and backgrounds are as crisp as a stack of hundreds straight out of the bank, and stand out like a ski-masked man in said establishment. During dialogue moments, the screen is overtaken by an animated bust of the character speaking, which exposes the true resolution of these sprites, but I hardly noticed. I was so happy to have full-sized images interacting with each other in what seemed a more personal way that static profile portrait cubes. That's so internet. Don't think you'll only be reading dialogue either, as Dust is fully voiced. Yep, any random character with a speaking part has his or her own unique voice, and not a terribly bad one either. Except for Fidget, your flying cat companion. Lord, what an annoyance, like Navi and the stupid ship droids in Star Wars: The Old Republic. I'm fully aware that sidekicks shouldn't be as awesome as their bigger named counterparts, but this is just next level. Fidget provides tons of squeaky voiced jokes that 95% of the time fly as true as the tomato which strikes Fozzie bear. As annoying as she is, I was willing to overlook this strike because the remainder of the game bats at a high percentage.
Several indie characters make easter egg appearances. Guess who this path leads to?
Play wise, Dust is a collection of side-scrolling expanses super-glued together by a world map which makes the game feel much less linear and easier to navigate. The stages feel very much Metroidvania, with the terrible nitpick of the stage maps being broken down into room-per-block, as opposed to Symphony of the Night's inch-of-the-room per block. This did not give me much of a desire to go for 200.6% as that would have required much fine combing where my patience is more like a pick. While you explore the bounteous stages, you'll have a variety of attacks at your disposal, all balanced between three attack buttons. The default attack which you can tap continuously for a basic combo, the special attack called Dust Storm, which turns Dust or his blade into a whirlwind of fast-hitting low damage slashes, or can be used with the basic attack to chain in pop-ups and slam downs. The third of the attacks is a magic blast from Fidget, dreadfully underpowered on its own, but a revelation when used with the Dust Storm. Fidget Mega Mans a few of the games bosses, learning new skills as you progress, including lightning and fire powers. The combos are a cinch, making Dust's enemies seem almost piteous, regardless of how many of them there are. Masterfully stringing together all of Dust's moves rewarded me with 1000+ hits on a few occasions, something I can't say I've done in similar games.
Big number combos are your friend: the higher a combo you notch, the more bonus experience you're rewarded with. Dust levels up as you continue to mince furry creatures with extreme prejudice, and with each level comes a point to assign to one of 4 categories: health, attack, defense, and Fidget (magic). This allows you to grow your character however you see fit, but honestly I feel like to kick tail you need to take a balanced approach to all parts, as everything is integral. To offset any favorites you may play in the levels game, there's a fairly robust crafting system as well. Fallen enemies drop materials and schematics in addition to gold, all of which you can bring to the blacksmith to have turned into an ancient piece of magical armor. Unfortunately, regardless of which type of armor you wear or what type of elemental sheath is increasing your attack power, the change is never reflected on Dust's physical form. I understand it would be asking to much for one man to draw sprites for thousands of different armor/sheathe variations, but it would've been nice.
Cooly walking into a mob for some fur-on-fur crime
Also along these lines, the fact that Dust's repertoire of attacks never expands. The game takes a vicious jump in difficulty toward the end of the story (I played on 'Hard' mode) and I thought it would be nice to have an increasing set of skills to help take down what's being thrown at you. While Dust does discover new skills on his journey, they are mostly of utility - double jump, slide, climb, et al. So your exploration progresses, but aside from a few new moves by Fidget, your battle prowess does not. It becomes hard to believe once Dust's story takes shape. When you simultaneously fight against 7 other enemies who dodge and parry faster than you, have more HP than you, and hit harder than you.. Well, it got a little frustrating, and I know for damn sure my battle coordination and twitch response is prime. By game's end, I felt as if I was being forced to grind my way up to complete the game simply because of how elite the enemies suddenly became. If you don't hand me a grinder, don't expect me to grind. Unless we're talking about husslin'. Or bumpin' and grindin', which I don't see nothing wrong with.
All in all, Dust: An Elysian Tail is not perfect, but it's a solid action-RPG-platformer good for 8-12 hours of sense-melting Metroidvania goodness. It has also made me a little more accepting of furries - just a little. The title is rooted enough in old school gaming to appeal to the OGs, while maintaining the sharp art and smooth animation required to keep a next gen gamer's eyes dancing. There aren't many flaws weighing it down, however I felt the flaws that I discovered were sticking points. It doesn't ruin the experience though. Dust is an impressive title that goes above and beyond in a variety of ways. It's probably the one of the best true Metroidvania experiences since Shadow Complex. If action-adventure-platform-RPG is for you (and honestly isn't it for everyone?) you'd be a hairbrain to avoid Dust.
The Score: 8 outta 10 Blasters!
BONUS: Going back and forth with a group of enemies on Tough difficulty!