In a 2D world composed of beautiful, hand-drawn vistas, an amnesiac hero named Dust embarks on a mission to recover his memory with the help of Fidget, a flying squirrel-like creature, and Ahrah, a talking sword. Dust: An Elysian Tail tells the surprisingly deep and genuinely heart-warming story of this journey without ever losing the smile-inducing, beautifully-crafted simplicity that underlines every aspect of the game. It’s fun, ridiculous, gorgeous, funny, fun, reflective, and then fun again. If you’re looking for a happy end to your gaming summer, this is it.

Gameplay-wise, Dust is a sidescrolling 2D hack’n’slash with a few RPG and platforming elements mixed in. Reminiscent of Metroidvania-style gaming, you guide Dust and his companions through a scenic world filled with monsters, intrigue, nasty plants, and treasure. Though most of your time will be spent dispatching waves of baddies, the level design mixes in enough simple puzzles and platforming sections to prevent the gameplay from ever feeling monotonous. The various environmental hazards that populate select levels – from touch-sensitive bombs to translucent plants that spit either health or poison at you, depending on how they’re feeling – ensure that even if you’re retracing old ground in search of missing treasure chest or previously-unreachable cave, you can’t just run straight through mindlessly.

Most of your time, however, will be spent fighting. Dust uses his mysterious capacity for excellent swordplay to dispatch enemies with an ever-expanding roster of combos and special attacks. Dust’s companion Fidget holds her own in fights, boasting a nice repertoire of ranged attacks that the player can activate in tandem with Dust’s aerial combo moves. Monsters come in all shapes and sizes, often revealing surprising abilities that force you to plan your mode of attack or else face a speedy defeat.

During fights is where you’ll have the most fun, wheeling Dust through the sky and watching the hit counter climb up as you wait for just the right moment to bring Fidget into the fight and push it up even further. While the screen can get a little crowded at times, the game’s simple, intuitive controls make it easy to stay on top of things. It’s a testament to their design that they enable you to plan and execute long strings of combos when surrounded by lightning bolts, fireworks, and other gorgeous hallmarks of frantic battle. Although none of this is exactly revolutionary, it is, as with everything else in the game, kept simple and executed to an incredibly high standard.

As you gain XP and level up, you’re able to upgrade the pair’s skills and augment their equipment by either picking up loot or spending your hard-won coins in the small stores that pepper each level. The only problem this raises is that the game’s monsters don’t level up with Dust and Fidget, making treasure-hunting trips to old areas almost too easy. While the game’s main story missions stay challenging and work on a decent difficulty curve, sidequests can tend to feel a little straightforward if you don’t start on them as soon as you discover them.

Happily, Dust‘s story is of a high enough quality to keep the player interested no matter how straightforward the sidequests can sometimes feel. The story follows the classic arc of the noble, amnesiac hero piecing together memories of his perhaps-not-so-noble past, and maintains genuinely impressive pacing, dialogue, and tension throughout. Dust’s self-image evolves steadily over the course of the game, with the character managing to deliver the essence of this evolution without dragging the player through excess periods of navel-gazing. Although he can sometimes sound a little too morose about the whole situation, he’s written well enough to generate genuine empathy. The way other character’s behavior towards him changes as they too learn more about his past is especially effective in this regard.

While the voice acting occasionally slips towards the dodgy, it generally remains good enough to sustain credulity and humor even in situations that seem like they should be capable of bringing out the snarky side in just about anybody. The acting really helps maintain the self-aware tone that props up much of the game’s writing, effectively bridging the gap between “we just asked the player to collect laundry for a gerbil with an Italian accent” and “perhaps they won’t take this super-seriously.” The harmony that exists between the writing and the acting is impressive, and its quality is responsible for a lot of the stand-out moments in the game.

Combined with its story, Dust owes much of its atmosphere and success to its truly gorgeous art and original, often complex music. Almost every backdrop is a hand-crafted gem that is aided by music that shifts in depth and tone at just the right moments to create a beautiful sense of setting and atmosphere. As with the writing and acting, there’s a simple harmony at work between the art and music in most levels that works so well as to be virtually invisible, drawing you into Dust‘s weird world so seamlessly that you barely notice. Once you start moving, you’ll be smiling to the end.

Bottom Line: Dust: An Elysian Tail is made of straightforward elements built to extraordinarily high standards, and rarely loses sight of its commitment to beauty, craft, and straight-up fun.

Recommendation: If your summer needs a last shot of happiness before it fades away to fall, Dust: An Elysian Tail has a place on your Xbox’s HDD.

[rating=4.5]

Game: Dust: An Elysian Tail
Genre: Platforming
Developer: Humble Hearts
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Platform(s): XBLA

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