It was obvious, really: the next evolution of 2D action RPGs lies with cat people wielding talking swords. At first glance, Dust: An Elysian Tail may look like an action platformer intended strictly for children, due to the game’s potentially off-putting cartoon protagonists. But once you get over the fact that every character is an anthropomorphic animal, you’ll find that that this XBLA downloadable’s combat, depth, and atmosphere are all in the same league of quality as Bastion and Shadow Complex. Unlike its hyped-up predecessors in this year’s Summer of Arcade, Dust is worthy of being called one of XBLA’s finest.
As the amnesiac cat warrior Dust, you wake up in a daze to be greeted by the Blade of Ahrah, a talkative mystic broadsword, and its pipsqueak guardian Fidget. Within minutes of starting the game, you’ll be admiring the gorgeous hand-drawn visuals – every backdrop has a subtle liveliness to it, with small details like trees gently swaying in the breeze and constantly shifting weather. While exploring each new area, you’ll be in awe at how many small details you can spot in the lush illustrated backgrounds. That said, it’s hard to appreciate these little touches when you’re focusing all your attention on hacking hordes of monsters to death.
You’ll be slashing through imaginative enemies in droves throughout Dust, utilizing a potent mix of swordplay and magic to slice and dice through your attackers. Combat starts off gripping and stays that way, granting you fresh abilities to change up the pace at exactly the right times. You won’t have to memorize or train additional button combos to take down your opponents, either. Instead of finding the best combo and sticking with it, you’ll simply incorporate new tricks, like parrying and air-dashing, into Dust’s fantastically straightforward free-flow swordfights. This gratifying combat is blended masterfully into a Metroidvania-style world, where exploration is rewarded with hidden items and new abilities.
RPG fans will enjoy customizing their stats and equipment (the best of which is locked away in cleverly hidden chests), while action addicts can set their stats to auto-level if they prefer. Unlike countless other action platformers, you’ll never have to struggle with an obscured view of the battlefield thanks to the dynamic camera, and your limitless bag space ensures that you’ll never have to sift through a bloated inventory. Everything about Dust’s interface just feels clean and well thought out.
If you can’t stand cutesy characters, Fidget’s Navi-like tendencies may have you grating your teeth. However, for an Everyone 10+ title, the story is surprisingly affecting, dealing with weighty concepts like death, identity, and free will. You’ll often undertake sidequests not just for the bonus XP and gold, but to help out the amiable bunny-, feline- and mushroom-people in need. Provided you can tolerate her high-pitched squeaking, Fidget’s constant breaking of the fourth wall can be hoot; she’ll squeal at you to “Mash buttons!” when fighting monsters, or marvel at your nonchalant attitude towards stashing entire sheep in your inventory.
Striving for 117% completion is fun enough on its own, but leaderboards for the addictive Cirelian Trial challenge rooms are sure to please competitive gamers. In terms of difficulty, Dust is as challenging as you want it to be: On Normal, you can see most of the content (with some treasure-hunting backtracking) in around 12 hours, while on Hardcore, every single encounter becomes a desperate fight for survival. Achievement hunters will also get a kick out of the game’s 30 achievements, which all unlock with a satisfying cadence as you carry out Dust’s heroic deeds.
With its supremely satisfying swordplay, enthralling exploration, and a story you’ll want to see through to the end, Dust feels like the Xbox homage to Vanillaware’s cult classics Odin Sphere and Muramasa. Though its aesthetic may turn some biased gamers away, they’ll be missing out on some of the best single-player action that $15 can buy.