A 2-D role-playing game arrives for download from Xbox Live Arcade rich in platforming tradition, classic painted animation and hack-and-slash combat in Dust: An Elysian Tail (Microsoft Game Studios and Humble Hearts, reviewed with Xbox 360, rated E10+ for players 10 and older, 1,200 Microsoft points or $15).
I’m not exaggerating about the game’s exquisite, Disney-esque quality delivered near solely by the one-man developing team of Dean Dodrill. Mr. Dodrill has been on this project since 2009 and his passion for the art form never disappoints as he breathes colorful life into the side-scrolling genre.
A player takes control of the mysterious, long-of-ear-but-short-of-memory warrior named Dust within the dangerous lands of Falana. He’s on a quest to liberate oppressed villagers while understanding his past.
The robed rabbit-like hero, who wears an Asian-style conical hat (that just covers his eyes), easily could exist in a panel from Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo comic book series.
He quickly gains the aid of the amusing, female flying fox Fidget (reference Chip ‘n’ Dale Rescue Rangers‘ Foxglove for the homage) and a talking sword called the Blade of Ahrah (sharpened with the wisdom of Obi-Wan Kenobi). Add a talkative cast of anthropomorphic side characters possibly plucked from a Don Bluth classic and enemies in line with the edginess of a Ralph Bakshi epic and a player falls right into an interactive 1980s cartoon.
Dust and his new best friends embark on a frenetic journey fraught with hordes of aggressive enemies as they traverse through terrain mixing in lightning-struck mountaintops, snowy landscapes, forests (peppered with bunnies, butterflies and wide-eyed deer), monolithic statues, rain swept villages and dark caverns.
Let’s talk about the pulse-pounding combat. Hack-and-slash games often lead to the blistering button mash and a level of monotony that could bore the player. Not here. Surviving in this hand-painted world loaded with fluid animation, a story to appreciate, secret areas containing treasure chests and dazzling on-screen effects never stops entertaining.
A player will not tire of swinging a sword using multiple combination moves, dispatching foes such as bipedal lizard and jackal-like creatures (and a spiked tendril muffin for good measure) and the use of his handy dust storm is simply breathtaking.
Dust can swing his blade like a propeller, causing a whirlwind of chaos on-screen. To sweeten the deal, Fidget can toss projectiles into the tornado-like mix, dealing damage to all enemies caught in its swath. Since his enemies often attack in bunches, from the ground and above, the storm creates a dazzling light show and controller-rumbling moments not soon forgotten.
The downside is Dust tires and the storm cannot be sustained indefinitely, so use it wisely, especially in boss battles that can frustrate.
And in the standards set in the world of role-playing, Mr. Dodrill tosses in talking to quirky townsfolk (each one seems to have a unique accent) to acquire side missions and story objectives. The characters pop up above the action for the conversation complete with lips that move to the subtitled text.
A player also manages a collection of resources and visits shops to buy and sell items (from armor to rings and pendants). He even finds a cute Blacksmith ready to build objects for a price (if you have the right combination of items).
Dust gains experience points and jewels through heroic actions and compassion with the villagers. They can be used to increase attributes such as health, defense attacks and Fidget’s powers.
Some other eye-candy moments to appreciate include electricity-infused teleporting devices (an effect so cool-looking that I practically could smell the ozone), exploding fruit bombs managed with the dust storm, some bizarre explosive floating bombs, and even the surprise of rescuing caged characters from other well-known video games.
A platforming triumph near Rayman Origins quality that will keep an average player busy for easily more than 20 hours, Dust: An Elysian Tail is a dazzling and incredibly value-priced adventure. Although its difficulty level might occasionally discourage, it will delight serious and casual gamers as well as nearly any older animation fan in the family.
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A graduate of Northwestern University with a degree in communications, Joseph Szadkowski has written about popular culture for The Washington Times for the past 17 years. He covers video games, comic books, new media and technology.
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