Evil Knife Hands. EVIL KNIFE HANDS!

The short version, for the video game enthusiast on the go: blah blah blah Steam summer sale blah blah best game ever blah blah Castlevania blah blah Zelda blah blah blah blah!!

And now, your feature presentation.

As per usual, I grabbed an armload of games during the Steam Summer Sale a couple months back. This time, my haul included:

  • Antichamber, a portal-like first-person-puzzle game that makes relying on the laws of reality quite difficult
  • Crypt of the Necrodancer, an amazingly innovative rhythm-based dungeon crawler that features some of the best dance songs I’ve heard in a while
  • Tales of Maj’Eyal, not yet opened
  • The Talos Principle, not yet opened

And, the feature of today’s post,

  • Dust, an Elysian Tail

I just finished Dust; I am literally writing this five minutes after watching the credits roll. I knew I would like the game from the first hour or two, but after finishing the game it is now one of my all time favorites. Dust does just about everything well. I’m having a hard time figuring out something that I don’t like about it. Let’s break it down a little.

Dust is a Castlevania-style RPG. Jump & swing. All of the combat is based off of one weapon, and three attack buttons. So right off the bat there isn’t a whole lot complexity-wise. Fortunately the game recognizes different sequences of the two main attack buttons for some powerful combos, both in the air and on the ground. In the heat of battle there is a lot to think about as you try to execute combos but also dodge enemy attacks. Furthermore, the emphasis on combos is multiplied ten-fold by the experience system. You level up (increasing in one of four stats, just barely enough to give you some degree of flexibility but also makes sure that there is no wrong choice) by killing enemies, but more so by executing combos of hits – any series of connected hits. Thus while the game gives you pre-programed sequences of two to five moves to do a real “combo”, you have to string those combos and other singular hits together in order to build up to combos of 100, 200, 500, or more hits. Finally, if you get hit at any point, you lose the combo and don’t get any of the combo experience you would have earned. As the reward of the combo experience rises faster than linearly with more hits, the risk of getting hit and losing (or rather not gaining) that chunk of experience grows as well. It’s a wonderful system that very intuitively fits into the hack-n-slash combat system and rewards the player for wanting to look cool.

I could go on and on just about the combat system. How the energy system forces you to use your projectiles and mobility bursts wisely, while incentivizing risky (but awesome) parrying. How the power of Dust storm and Dust Tornado are equalized by their lack of mobility and fixed trajectory, respectively. Etc. All of that would be well and good if Dust were only valuable for its combat. While that’s what got me hooked, it’s not what kept me coming back. For that, I needed the story.

Story-wise, Dust is very Zelda, minus the titular princess. We have a guy with an annoying companion and a magical sword trying to rid the world of evil guy. We journey around the world, helping people out of the lurch the evil guy put them in, grow morally, and eventually save the world. Normally, this would really annoy me. It’s an extremely formulaic story pattern that I grew tired of five years ago.

But it doesn’t. Not at all.

Dust kept my attention from the first moment to the ending cutscene because I liked every. single. character. Coming off of recently playing LOZ: Link between Worlds (a great game in its own right), I was struck by the character depth that Dust achieves without substantially changing the story format. First of all, the whole “let’s not give the main character dialogue because it makes him/her too hard to identify with” thing is played out, and I’m really glad Dust doesn’t subscribe to it. Dust (the titular character) talks plenty throughout the game, and has an actual personality to boot. This is actually a requirement, given the plot of the game, but it turns out quite well.

Fidget, Dust’s traditional back-sassing flying annoyance, serves as comic relief and fourth-wall-breaker, but also shows a surprising amount of emotion at the most trying moments of the story. She’s one of the first companions I’ve actually enjoyed having on an adventure game, one who made the story better than it would have been in her absence. One big reason for Fidget’s ranking well above the likes of Fi and Navi is that she only interrupts you to talk when it’s absolutely necessary. All of the mundane notifications (there’s treasure here/you’re low on health/you’re out of energy, etc) are handled with only a small symbol above her head and a brief but noticeable chime.

Magical talking sword Arrah rounds out Dust’s crew, taking the role of secretive wizard-like person who knows what’s going on but can’t tell Dust because of reasons that become clear near the end of the game. This would be frustrating to a real person, and amazingly, it’s frustrating to Dust as well. Dust gets mad at Arrah frequently throughout the game, whenever Arrah tells him to do something with little to no rationale behind it. The party size of three leads to some interesting argument resolutions throughout the game, where two parties agree against the wishes of the third. There are a few extended cut scenes, but they are all near the end of the game at which point I was 100% invested in the plot of the game. Finally, though I really can’t go into much detail, the fully unrolled plot is very interesting features some very unusual details, and also leaves copious amounts of room for a sequel, if there isn’t one already.

Finally, Dust is a visual and audio masterpiece. Every three-stage background, every enemy, and every animation is cut from the same vibrantly colored and flowing cloth.

300 hit combos are infinitely more satisfying because it looks like the whole thing was choreographed. A friend of mine watched me play for a good ten minutes, and at the end asked if it was scripted. It feels a bit like what Bastion would look like if every background was filled in with sweeping hills and towering mountains. Sound-wise, I felt like I was listening to the Lord of the Rings soundtrack. Powerful symphonic movements accompany Dust through his journeys, combining symbiotically with the landscapes and punctuating key moments. The only thing I can find wrong with Dust (and this is the smallest of nitpicks) is that the blending of foreground to mid-ground to background sometimes makes it difficult to determine what is walkable terrain. But it’s a trade I’ll gladly make for the seamlessness of the whole world.

Overall, to say that I loved Dust is an understatement. It sets a precedent for every adventure and RPG games that I will ever play, in just about every judicable category. I played it on the Tough difficulty, which was just right for me, and took about the right amount of time for a small adventure game (12 hrs). I can’t even deride it for being too easy, as there is a hardcore difficulty above tough that I’m sure would kick the crap out of me and most players. If you like Adventure games, RPGs, or Hack-n-slashes, Dust is an absolutely must buy. If not, I would still say give it a shot as the paragon of its genres.