The side-scrolling “Metroidvania” genre has seen some tough times. Virtually abandoned by its namesakes in favor of first-person or third-person 3D iterations, it has surprisingly found a home on Xbox Live Arcade. From Shadow Complex to Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, and now Dust: An Elysian Tail, Metroidvanias seem alive and well on the service.
Initially, Dust was to be an 8-bit-style Xbox Live indie, but a lucky contest win won the game a development grant and (eventually) a spot in this year’s Summer of Arcade, giving it time to enhance the visuals immensely. Dust’s developer, Dean Dodrill, is an animator by trade, and his expertise really shines here.
Since the Nintendo 64, 2D games have had a reputation for being 2D simply because they didn’t have enough budget to create a 3D world. The return of 2D side-scrollers and platformers in the last few years has been one of my favorite things about the rise of downloadable games. Because we can create games in 3D doesn’t always mean we should, developers have shown that there are still great games to be made with a side-view perspective.
The most noticeable thing about this game is the art style. For one, it feels like playing a cartoon. The environments are hand-painted landscapes, and the animated cast members feel like they belong in a ’90s Disney movie. The entire cast is made up of animal characters, with the exception of your character’s weapon. Dust, your character, is joined by Fidget, a flying creature who acts as an advisor and loves to smash the fourth wall at times. Fidget also fires a weak energy projectile in combat. Finally, you’ve got your sword, the Blade of Ahrah, which can also speak. The voice acting is good, and the characters fit well together. I suppose it may be an issue for someone who just can’t stand animal characters, but I find their aesthetic makes the game stand out from the pack.
Like any Metroidvania, the game encourages exploration, gating your progress with bosses and requiring specific items or skills to progress onward. Exploration is encouraged, and each new area feels different, from mountains to the underworld. Areas may also contain hidden items, marked by a circle on the map, which will be familiar to Metroid fans. The map doesn’t feel quite as mysterious or connected as an older game’s would, as the transitions are more pronounced, but this is a tradeoff made for the sake of the wonderful art, so I can understand it.
The combat is incredibly addictive, and is based around amassing large combos without being hit. Movement is fast, and attacks flow into each other well. Many attacks are based around a combination of Dust’s sword moves and Fidget’s weak ranged attack. The system feels like many action games, though the most similar would have to be the Dishwasher games, also on XBLA, though Dust lacks the visceral graphic violence seen in Dishwasher. The smoothness of your movement makes the system enjoyable, and the ability to switch it up with Fidget’s abilities helps change it up in long fights with large groups.
Dust takes an old formula and adds just enough into it to make this one of the top XBLA releases of the year. If you’re looking for something new, this is definitely worth a look.
Pros: Lush art style, great mechanics design
Cons: Gated areas stifle flow