Making an indie game is often a way to get your work noticed by developers and the first step in getting your next title picked up by a publisher. In the case of Dust: An Elysian Tail, this game bypassed the small time and went from the Dream-Build-Play competition for Xbox Indie games to being a full Xbox Arcade release and one of the five games featured in the Xbox Live Arcade Summer of Arcade promotion.
The project started as an animated film, but animator Dean Dodrill took his world put it into XNA (The development kit for Xbox Live games) and turned it into a game. The results are astonishingly good for such humble beginings.
Dodrill is a veteran of Epic Megagames and their old Jazz Jackrabbit series. In his blog he mentions not having coded anything in years before deciding to make Dust: An Elysian Tail. He doesn’t seem rusty at all because the art is gorgeous hand-drawn material and the game controls fluidly with classic sidescrolling action RPG mechanics.
Dust is a furry warrior in a land of other anthropomorphic critters. He’s lost his memory and can’t recall how he came to be there. In short time he meets a talking sword named Ahrah and a sassy fox fairy named Fidget.
The video game protagonist with amnesia is a tired old cliché, but it works for this story, and over the course of Dust’s adventures, players will learn more about his backstory and through his quest they’ll learn more about the land too.
Dust’s talking sword Ahrah provides stale exposition, while Fidget the flying fox provides the humor. The sort of sassy, cowardly sidekick that Fidget represents is usually annoying, but Fidget is actually a lot of fun to have around.
Fidget is aware that she’s a character in a video game (Even though the other characters aren’t) and this provides much “Through the fourth wall” humor. She’ll offer advice like “Smash the buttons!” before combat, or even ask NPCs if they’ve been watching the screen. Hardcore gamers will notice a few references to other game franchises pop up as well: “Ah… he’ll buy it at a high price”.
Dust will adventure back and forth through his world battling evil and constantly learn new abilities that open up paths for him to proceed along in his quest. It’s essentially the “Metroidvania” genre of gaming in which the Player will need to revisit old areas after gaining new abilities in order to access previously locked off locations. The genre-savvy Fidget even spells this out on occasion.
Dust starts out with basic sword attacks but quickly learns to generate a whirlwind that can do all sorts of handy things, like pull objects towards him, or help him attack airborne enemies. He continues to learn new tricks as he proceeds including a tricky-but-powerful parry move that helps bring down the tougher enemies.
He also gains experience points from using varied combos so players have plenty of encouragement to avoid button-mashing. As he gains experience points for fighting bad guys and completing quests, he’ll level up and this lets him build up his basic stats. He’ll also collect raw materials that can then be used for a simple crafting system that provides additional bonuses.
All of these aspects are mixed together in just the right proportions. There’s plenty of action with the occasional “Hey I wonder what’s over there” moment to encourage players to explore and solve puzzles. The economy and crafting are there for players who hit a tough spot and need better loot to get over a hump but Dust never feels like a loot haul or XP crawl.
Yet the most enjoyable part of Dust is the world in which it’s set. These fuzzy characters have interesting backstories and plenty of witty dialog to encourage the Player to stop and talk. True they do send him off to find lost mementos and other standard-issue RPG sidequests, but the cast is well-voiced and well-written.
Despite the swordsmanship, Dust: An Elysian Tail is still kid-friendly, but grown-ups shouldn’t be put off by the cute & fuzzy characters. This is great fun for all ages. There’s no multiplayer aspect to it, but there are leaderboards and a series of single-player challenge arenas so players can compete for bragging rights.
Dust: An Elysian Tail is probably the best of the games in the Summer of Xbox Arcade promotion this year. It’s out now for 1,200 Microsoft Points and gamers who buy it and two other titles in the Summer of Arcade will receive a bonus of 400 MS Points.