Is a man defined by his birth, or is a man defined by overcoming his birth?

Dust is a 2D side-scrolling video game mash-up. Combining solid hack-and-slash gameplay with lite RPG elements and the platforming/backtracking commonly associated with games in the "Metroidvania" style, Dust is a love letter to the tried and true elements of games that we all know and love. With all these well-known video game tropes, everything points to Dust being a hollow and derivative title that will be pushed to the back of your mind the moment you finish the game. However, if you think that, you would be wrong.

Innovative and Surprising Despite Imitation

You are Dust. Asleep in a whimsical forest, you are awakened by the sentient Blade of Ahrah, one of the five Blades of Elysium, and find that you have forgotten your name and everything about your past. As you claim the blade as your own for the time being, the guardian of the blade, a nimbat named Fidget, comes to see why after two hundred years the Blade has suddenly started to fly and talk. Fidget provides the comical relief to what will be a very mature story and this light-heartedness matches the overall visual style of the game. Even though the "fourth" wall will be broken by some of Fidget's dialogue, these conversations never come across as cheap or out of place. Talking animals and amnesia are not new to video game narratives. Dust: An Elysian Tail mixes up the narrative and gameplay enough for you to feel like you are playing a unique game with its own significance.

A Bright Visage of Meticulous Love

Dean Dodrill's labor of love is well-documented, and his work is immediately apparent.  The art style and animation will endear you to the characters and world of Falana. The 2D graphics are reminiscent of the brilliant setting from the original Rayman. Throughout your journey, you will run through forests, delve into caves, and ascend to the summit of a snowy mountain. The graphics are a huge benefit to Dust. Some may look at the screenshots from the game and prematurely decide that it is made for children. While the art style may give the overall impression of popcorn fantasy, the detailed character models, focused environmental effects (e.g. rain and snow), and lush backgrounds will please even the most critical of gamers. It is not photo-realistic, but if you approach the game with an open mind, you will appreciate the time taken to meticulously build this world.

Hit the Buttons (Something Cool Will Happen)

The fighting mechanics for Dust should be familiar to anyone who has played action games. Using the sentient Blade of Ahrah, the player must employ a combination of heavy attacks and light attacks to achieve visually stunning combos. The heavy attack is best described as a basic melee slash. The light attack is known as the "Dust Storm" attack and is used most effectively as an aerial assault. A third "attack" provided by Fidget is a projectile and should be used during the Dust Storm attack as a modifier to that attack. After the first few hours of the game, the combat will become repetitive with no major attack variations being added beyond a couple more projectile attacks given to Fidget. Unfortunately, the game does not properly reward attack variation and the most effective attack is often heavy melee strikes (one after another). The onus of keeping encounters varied falls solely on the player to forego the most effective attack for the most interesting and visually diverse attack. Executing the latter option does not totally ensure that you will stay enthralled by the combat throughout the 8 - 12 hours that you will spend playing this game. When the drive to play for the combat subsides, the story will drive you to complete the game. You should know that the combat difficulty will spike during the last chapter of the game. When playing on the harder difficulties, I would urge you to upgrade your various accessories, Augments, and Armor before proceeding to the final encounter. Unless you are consulting a guide, the presence of a few Revival Stones in your inventory would be advised for the final boss battle as well.

My Conclusion

8.5 "A Must Have for Any Downloadable Game Enthusiast"

If you are thinking that Dust is 2D Devil May Cry with anthropomorphic animals and a more family friendly presentation, I would say that you are on the right track. Dust: An Elysian Tail is a tribute to games as well as a reason to love games. Providing hours of solid entertainment, the $15 price is a great value when compared to other contemporaries on XBLA. A serious, yet heartwarming, tale is told in such a way that will have you falling in love with the characters as you discover the truths of the past. Still, the game has its flaws. Combat will feel like a chore for some; the voice acting can be a little overdramatic, and the ending coupled with the specific number of side quests, easily completed in one playthrough, will cut into the excitement of any subsequent playthrough. These shortcomings should not deter you from playing this game. For the time you spend in Falana, you will be rewarded with a story that delves into the heady subjects of love, freewill, destiny, and self-discovery. Who knows? You might learn something about yourself along the way.

P.S. My favorite moment in the game was the result of completing a sidequest for a little boy in Mudpot. If you pick up this game, I would recommend the sidequests as a way to learn about the characters and world of Falana. With a story such as this, conversation and immersion in the world are important to the overall effect of the narrative. Take your time in the world of Falana, and you will not be sorry.

Developer: Humble Hearts/Publisher: Microsoft Studios

Xbox Live Arcade - MSRP $14.99 (1200 MP)

(Note) It was recently announced that Dust: AET would be making its way onto Steam as soon as April of 2013. Keep an eye out for this great game. I hope that you have enjoyed this review.