Being a grown-up is no fun. You've got taxes to pay, receding hairlines to fret over and evening tango classes to attend, all the while smoking a large metaphorical pipe of gloomy sophistication. And your games have to be surly and "meaningful", games with a point to make, rather than thoughtless little minefields of joy and gratification. All told, I'd much rather be a rodent ninja wearing a swish hat, accompanied by a talking stone sword and an orange flying weasel.
Actually, Dust: An Elysian Tail does have a point to make, about whether your past defines you or vice versa, but that point is delicately submerged beneath sleek, beautiful freeform combat, layered backdrops of mind-bending scale and artistry, and a script that doesn't so much break the fourth wall as rub up against it like an affectionate tomcat. The work of Jazz Jackrabbit animator Dean Dodrill, whose love for the likes of Castlevania and Tomba oozes from every pixel, it's an almost embarrassingly classy effort, held back only by a failure to evolve beyond the opening action-platformer rhythms and a slightly grating, Saturday morning anime tone.
Dust is the aforesaid ninja, and while he's doing pretty well in the aggravating soft toy department, he's got no memory. Elysian Tail makes adroit use of some very obvious clichés, powering through apathy with a mixture of in-jokes and opulence. Walls spit "mysterious wall chickens" when they're smashed, your weasel chum Fidget quaveringly suggests that you save before entering dark caverns, and the sword is given to husky Biblical rants on the subject of parrying and status effects. The environments are sweetly generic, encompassing rainy meadows, villages straight out of feudal Japan, gothic challenge chambers and bone-cluttered forests, and while you'll wince the first time you spot a rabbit holding a pitchfork, the characters are a well-produced bunch. The voice-acting in particular is both considerable and incredible, though the game presumably benefits here from its association with Dodrill's forthcoming animated feature.
It's a simple affair, despite areas that extend sideways, down and up like a masochistically prolonged domino match. There's character customisation, but the options are limited to health, attack, defence and magic, and an item creation system that you're generally free to ignore, on Normal difficulty at least. Hidden treasures (some inaccessible till you've gained an ability) and side-quests strew the straight and narrow, the latter worth investigating simply for the charming little knuckles of characterisation you'll meet along the way, but a grid-based map in top right keeps you mindful of your goal.
Enemies are plentiful and generally, a pushover: the challenge is not to scrape by but to uppercut the combo gauge into the hundreds and thousands. Besides a small selection of fluid chops, lifts and dashes, Dust can perform ground-based and aerial Dust Storm attacks which subject nearby foes to death by a thousand cuts. Stir in a few of Fidget's magic projectiles, and you'll trigger a screen-filling maelstrom - useful, given that enemies are fond of dodging around. It's hardly as technical as a Devil May Cry or a Bayonetta, but building a really meaty combo is pleasantly tricky, often requiring that you try to spill one hostile group into the next. Dodrill throws in new breeds of nasty (like morose exploding puffballs) and environmental hazard (like mushrooms that spew poison when you move) just enough to keep things sizzling, though a few more twists and turns would have been appreciated towards the finale.
Dust will see you past ten hours easily, and may last you past 15 if you're serious about completing all the fetch quests and finding all the hidden goodies. It doesn't quite have the repertoire to justify the second figure, to my mind, but the 1200 MP outlay shouldn't give you pause. This is a labour of love for a bygone era that will be remembered just as fondly.
Buy Dust: An Elysian Tail here, and do let us know what you think.
The strongest Summer of Arcade release yet
- Superbly drawn and animated
- Fluid combat
- Wide range of characters
- Engaging story
- A touch simplistic