The Ballad of Battle Bunnies
Or maybe it’s The Ferocious Fighting Furries Fable. Whatever you call it, Dust: An Elysian Tail combines the plushiness of anime-style anthropomorphic animals with fast and technical 2D hack-and-slash mechanics. The result is weird and both underwhelming and absolutely adorable.
Before our warm and fuzzy (or, at least, that’s how I imagine him) friend Solar Pony Django stepped up as my Secret Santa and presented me with Dust: An Elysian Tail, the only thing I had heard about the game was its name. I’d never actually tried to inquire about its genre or what it was about – so all I could do was make wild guesses judging by the title. Was it something indie and melancholically beautiful, Journey-style? Or, maybe, something concentrated on physics and levitation, with particle effects (hence the “Dust” part)? I tried to picture an Elysian tail in my mind. I failed. Actually, I still don’t know what that means. But did I ever expect the game to turn out a vibrant-coloured side-scrolling platformer/hack’n’slash? No sirs and m’ladies, I did not.
Dust: An Elysian Tail is one huge paradox. Drawn in the distinct Japanese animation style, it was created solely in the West. Featuring a story and characters that would fit in a JRPG, it is unmistakably an action title. Finally, even with most of its characters being cute and furry, the game’s narrative is a couple steps from noir, dealing with topics like death, racism and war. However, while touching on these subjects is certainly commendable, I felt that the touches were rather… unsatisfying, if you know what I mean.
It's time to meet the hero of our story. Even with his hat off I couldn't make out what animal he is -- certainly not a bunny. A capybara, maybe? :)
The game starts with the titular character Dust (ah, no particle effects, after all) – awakening in the middle of a forest together with a Talking Sword, a Female Flying Furry… Thing and Amnesia – the latter playing a larger role in the story than the first two. “Great”, I thought, "Here come the JRPG tropes”. Then (of course!) I was attacked by a horde of kobold-looking creatures and had to fight them off with the sword, while the flappy little brat was squeaking into my ears… well, at least the combat was solid, and it kept me going.
Aaaaand the award for the Most Annoying Sidekick in Videogames goes to... Fidget the Nimbat!
So, Fidget. Fidget is… well, fidgety. She’s selfish, cowardly, twisted, bad-mouthed and loud, and at first one might start wondering what was the point for including such an unlikable character, apart from providing comic relief. As the story progressed however, I thought I understood the developers’ intention. You see, with Dust being such an overwhelmingly positive dude – kind and helpful to a fault even when asked to run even the most ridiculous errands possible – he would have been immeasurably bland without a darker counterpart. Fidget often provides snarky retorts and colourless humour on the occasion, as if voicing the protagonist’s darker thoughts he’s just trying to suppress. As a result, we see something that resembles a Freudian personality layers model (total speculation from here, yeah), with Fidget clearly being the Id, Arah the talking sword representing Dust’s super-ego, and Dust himself stuck between those two. Luckily, the dialogues involving Fidget are really witty and well-written, so it does not feel like a psychology lesson.
As the game progresses we can also witness both characters forming a bond of friendship and becoming more and more influenced by each other's personalities. Actually, my favourite moments in the game are those when Dust himself makes a darker joke or two, Fidget usually being the target… absolutely priceless. :)
Alright, back to business. After I’d cleared the first location and came to an opening I encountered the game’s first NPC – and had an instant laughing fit. Now, look here.
Right is Geehan, a character from Dust, and left is Hare/Rabbit from the cult Soviet animated series Nu, Pogodi! (“Just You Wait!”) that I think every Russian is all too familiar with. Guess the years haven’t been kind to the poor little guy. :)
After I had calmed down, I helped the old rabbit out and then stopped the kobolds from attacking the nearby village, got some obligatory sidequests from its fuzzy inhabitants and ventured out to fight the game’s first boss, struggling with yawning. And that’s when the story made an unexpected twist: it turned out that the kobolds and other monsters weren’t attacking the village because of some inherent malevolence. Some were simply running away from the forest fires and looking for a new place to live, others were looking for water as their springs had run dry... And the boss seemed to somehow know Dust, branding him as a genocidal murderer. Now, hasn’t someone got skeletons in their closet (and, like, literal skeletons)!
Looks like there’s a war going on between the furry-looking “Warmbloods” and lizard-like “Moonbloods”, and our Mr. Hatted Hero played some important part in it. Alas, our friend Amnesia has gotten to him, the boss is dead, and Arah the Talking Sword, while clearly aware of the whole picture, seems to be in a constant haste, saying stuff like, “It’s not the time, I will explain later”. What in the world can a sword be so busy with, I wonder? :)
Spoilers aside, Dust’s identity does get revealed eventually, in the penultimate chapter aptly named Revelation – and while I can’t say it’s a particularly extraordinary plot twist, we do receive a satisfying explanation which is, coincidentally, not as banal as I expected it to be. So is the final confrontation with the armour-clad rabbit villain, and the ending sequence… But here comes the greatest issue I’ve had with the game’s story. It's not bad. Actually, it has parts that are really, really great. But alas, it does not go to extremes, nor does it delve into too much details – and thus the overall impression is “just okay”, while it could have been simply astounding, had the developers given the story enough elaboration. It certainly had every bit of potential to become something really special.
The aforementioned lack of thoroughness can also be found in Elysian Tail’s combat. While pretty solid in itself, it severely lacks variety, and by end-game feels more like a chore than anything else. There are only three combos Dust learns at the beginning of the game: a ground combo, a launcher and an aerial combo followed by a pile driver. The latter is particularly satisfying to pull against enemy helicopters (yep, you read me right) in the final chapter, in which case there’s even a slow-motion effect accompanying it, -- it serves as a nice little touch. The combat also features dodging and parrying mechanics, albeit the window for parrying is so large it’s almost impossible to fail, and quite often I had parries triggered accidentally just by mashing the “attack” button. That said, otherwise the controls feel very tight and responsive, so if you do get hit and lose that 900-hit combo chain you’ve been building it’s nobody’s fault but yours. Oh, did I mention there’s a sidequest for building a 1000-hit chain? Yes, that’s a thing.
Oh, but it seems like Fidget's already got it covered? Okay girl, I'll go get me some tea while you work. :)
The essential mechanic to building high-count combos is “Dust Storm” that amplifies Fidget’s low-damage projectiles, creating a literal elemental storm that hits everything on-screen and raises the hit counter sky-high. And while there’s a limit for using Dust Storm continuously before it needs to cool down, it’s still relatively easy to maintain it as long as you want, which – provided you level it up properly – can make melee combat practically obsolete. There are three projectile elements unlocked throughout the game, but frankly speaking, I couldn’t quite figure out the difference between them, gameplay-wise.
Another promising but not exactly thought-out addition is the crafting system. After completing a certain quest, you’ll be able to contact Hailey, a sexy blacksmith rabbit-girl who can craft equipment for you – provided you have the necessary blueprint and materials. Both of these are gained randomly from enemies or found in treasure chests – nothing out of the ordinary. The peculiarity is that you can sell the materials to merchants, thus adding each item type to their catalogue after the first deal. Catalogued materials can then be bought at a premium cost; they restock over time, and it should be a nice little alternative to farming a missing item or two. Note that I said “should”, as throughout the game I hardly ever found myself short for money, so it was practically down to finding at least one of the required material type, selling it and then buying as many as I needed for the best equipment available. Additionally, due to that and the random nature of enemies dropping blueprints, I’ve also found 80 per cent of the existing equipment pretty much worthless: why bother crafting every armour that gives slight stat increase when I already have the blueprint for the best type altogether? And crafted equipment is not recycled in any way – nor do the shops buy it for a worthy price… I think the game would have benefited from something like Mana Khemia's alchemy, with a large, branching crafting system that utilizes old items to create new ones. That would have given Dust some extra depth. Now, I know it's too much to ask of a small-scale indie action title… but a guy can dream, right? :)
Here comes Haley the Blacksmith. Oh, that buttery voice... remind me, why am I stuck with Fidget, again?
Where Dust absolutely shines though is platforming and exploration. Relying heavily on metroidvania principles, it manages to keep the tried-and-true formula fresh by making you actually figure out the way to most secrets even with the necessary abilities unlocked. The puzzles are cleverly designed and often give the player room for variation (perhaps sometimes unknowingly). It may take you a good few hours trying to find and reach all the secret places. Frankly speaking though, after completing the game with a few secrets left untouched I don’t particularly feel the urge to get back and find them all – but I guess I’m just not completionist enough. :)
The soundtrack, created by HuperDuck Soundworks, is also absolutely wonderful, combining heavy layers of atmospheric pads with prominent and dynamic piano tunes. Overall, the music sets the right mood for the game and often smoothens out the narrative’s stand-out parts instead of highlighting them – which adds a certain contrast, yet does not feel wrong... Ah, sorry, I can never write about music without sounding like a bore – so here, better give this tune a listen and let’s pretend I’ve given it a proper introduction. :)
Okay, it looks like this has gotten much wordier than I’d expected… I need something like a bottom line now, don’t I? Ahem. Dust: An Elysian Tail delivers a solid experience, shining in some areas and a bit underperforming in others. The game’s strongest point however is actually not in any of its elements, but in the way they are put together, and in the sheer amount of love poured into creating it. And when the love is there, any narrative inconsistencies, or cheesy voice acting, or any other minor drawback for that matter feel so insignificant, one can just turn a blind eye on it. It’s what inside that matters, riiight? :)
Right. So I’d like to say a word of thanks to the wonderful Solar Pony for introducing me to this game, and the sweet Luna Sy for coming up with the whole Secret Santa affair – and to all of you here who hasn’t fallen asleep reading this stuff!
...wait, what was that snoring sound? Oh, sorry. Sleep tight, dear reader, sleep tight! :)