Developer: Humble Hearts
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Release Date: Out Now
At some point in life, everyone faces a crisis of identity. Who am I and just what is it that defines me? Humble Hearts“ debut game stars a character facing that same dilemma. As the titular hero seeks his identity, the player is left wondering not only who Dust is, but what Dust is meant to be.
Artistically, Dust defines itself clearly. The anthropomorphized animals have a style that can only be called "furry." I“m not fond of it, but even so, the character art is average at best. Character portraits oddly pulse to simulate breathing, but just look unsettling. The characters themselves are generic and the art is lacking in quality. The game has a couple of animated scenes, but they serve to be a reminder that the artistic vision behind Dust outreaches the artist“s capabilities.
In stark contrast, the background design is easily the best part of the game. From snowy mountains, to fiery volcanoes, the art oozes style and is a treat to look at. There are also weather effects that add to the atmosphere, though they can obscure what“s happening.
Thematically, the game starts strong, but fizzles out. The story opens with Dust, the amnesiac hero, being awakened by the sentient Blade of Ahrah and its guardian, Fidget. Overall, the plot concerns Dust“s identity and whether it“s his past that defines him or what he does in the moment. It“s a good theme, but it“s marred by inconsistencies in how characters view his identity. Characters waffle on their opinion and even at the end there“s no solid evidence that Dust has an answer of his own. The ending also spurns another theme present in the game to leave the possibility of a sequel.
Mechanically, Dust marries RPG stat growth, hack-and-slash gameplay, and action-adventure exploration Ã la Metroid. The RPG aspect starts strong, letting you distribute points between health, defense, attack, and magic. This lets you start to build Dust to suit your style. However, your progression in any one stat soon gets halted and you are forced into a more even distribution, dispelling the illusion of choice. Enemies drop materials and blueprints to create equipment, with the shop selling a material after you sell one, which is a nice alternative to farming mobs for hours on end, but there are no unique items to be dropped or found.
The combat is a step above most games in the genre, but not as strong as in a hack-and-slash game. The X button executes sword combos, the Y button handles dust storm attacks, and the B button uses magic. Despite that, the game boils down to two buttons, as dust storm and magic attacks are too weak on their own. Instead, you“re meant to launch a magic attack and then a dust storm, causing a powerful area attack. It“s a simple system with few combos and little variety. The enemies aren't varied enough to require you to change tactics, so once you have a preferred combo, you“re mostly set. Though the story does set up the existence of other weapons like the Blade of Ahrah, he“s the only one you get, leaving Dust hurting for variety.
The right and left triggers handle dodging, which is limited by the same gauge as your magic, but the system suffers from a worse quirk. Upon coming out of a dodge, the game will always have Dust facing the center of the screen, as opposed to having him face the direction being held. This can cause problems in mobs, where rolling away from an enemy can stick you in the middle of others while facing the wrong way. There“s also a parry system, where pressing and holding X when an enemy attacks stuns them and lets you counter. The window for parries is wide, making the move easy to perform when needed.
Even the exploration aspect falls flat. While other games in the genre have hidden character upgrades, the treasures to find in Dust are largely money and generic items, with a few minor health increases. The exploration is fun enough, but ultimately futile unless you“re obsessed with map completion. The platforming options are basic, with the story upgrades you get just offering access to new areas and not a new way to explore old areas.
Some may be relieved to hear that despite the genres Dust combines, it's an easy game. Most enemies can be taken out with simple combos and parries, and even the bosses can fall into simple AI loops. There are options to allow auto-combos and healing. The game is also generous with save points. While the areas may be larger than usual, you“re never more than a few squares away from a save point. On higher difficulties, the worst you“ll have to deal with is managing money and healing items. Even the challenge rooms in the game are just simple exercises in memorization with little actual combat. That doesn“t meant there aren“t some unevenly difficult sections though. There a couple of areas that feature randomly falling objects that do very high damage, and the final area features an army of allies that obscure the enemy, making the area harder than it needs to be.
Technically, the game is flawed. I had issues with stat bonuses not being applied correctly when equipping two of the same item and issues with jumping out of dodges. Drops in frame rate are not uncommon and can happen even in less visually complex areas. I also had the game crash on a few occasions while transitioning to new areas. It“s not unplayable, but it doesn“t live up to the quality one would expect from a Summer of Arcade title.
As a character, Dust struggles to understand who he is and what defines him. As a game, Dust: An Elysian Tail faces the same conflict. Combining RPG character progression, hack-and-slash gameplay, and Metroid inspired exploration, Dust reaches an equilibrium where no one element stands out. It doesn“t manage to be remarkably fun, challenging, or moving, but also fails to offend. At the end of the day, Dust simply is.
+ Beautiful scenery
+ Forgiving difficulty
- Low quality character art
- Combines many genres, excels at none
- Technical issues
Overall Score: 5.5 (out of 10)
Dust: An Elysian Tail has big ambitions, but doesn“t live up to its vision. It“s not a bad game, but it doesn“t do anything special.