Yes, the titular character in Dust: An Elysian Trail is a blue fox that walks like a person and is accompanied by a smaller flying fox, but if you can’t get over that, you’d be denying yourself one of the most responsive 2D action games I’ve ever played.
Outside of the hand-painted art (all done by one guy!), the first thing I noticed during my hands-on time with the game was how fast and fluid the combat feels. Action games often have a challenge balancing complex animation and responsive controls, and one is generally always sacrificed in favour of the other. That doesn’t apply to Dust, however. I don’t know what devil magic Dean Dodrill used to make this work, but the game is even faster than Metal Gear Rising.
For the most part, combos are kept simple. The game takes the Devil May Cry approach instead of the Bayonetta approach: it gives you a few combos and expects you to learn what they do. At first, the Y button doesn’t do a thing in the demo unless it’s comboed into with X. Dust’s attacks are limited, but they chain together very well, and the inputs comfortably familiar. Like Ninja Gaiden, XY is a launcher, and XXXY in the air will make Dust grab the enemy with the hook of his sword and smash it to the ground. Not quite an Izuna drop, but the same in action.
Every attack animation but one (the end of XXYY, in which Dust grabs an enemy and flips it over his head) can be cancelled out of with a dodge roll, performed in the left or right directions by the respective trigger buttons. Dodge rolls themselves can be cancelled out of with attacks or jumps. Jumping out of a dodge roll can even launch you in the direction you’ve rolled with more forward momentum than you’d have if you were just running. You have an immense amount of control you have over Dust, and it makes the combat extremely fluid.
Because of the level of control, and the sheer amount of enemies you’re fighting, combat involves constantly moving all around the screen. Attacks in the air will draw Dust closer to airborne enemies, expanding his range of motion to the sky. In addition to his dodge roll, Dust can also parry any enemy by timing his attack to collide with theirs, which was a requirement to expose the heavily armored boss of the demo to damage. Finally, while melee attacks alone fill the screen with particles and bend the air around you, combat really becomes a spectacle when you incorporate projectiles in the mix.
Projectiles (used with B) feel pretty underpowered on their own. In the E3 demo, Fidget, Dust’s flying companion, would shoot out a few balls of energy, but they didn’t do a whole lot of damage. However, you may recall I mentioned earlier that the Y button didn’t do anything at the start of the demo either. After beating a mid-boss, Dust gained the Dust Storm ability. Holding Y on the ground would cause Dust to spin his blade in front of him like a pinwheel, and firing a projectile into that would multiply it and spew energy in all directions, lighting up the screen like a bullet hell shooter.
Holding the button in the air would cause Dust to spin through the air in any direction(think Wolverine’s "drill claw" in Marvel vs. Capcom), and could still divide and amplify Fidget’s projectiles. There are two main limitations to this method: projectile use is limited by a regenerating meter, and Dust will hurt himself if he continues using Dust Storm for too long.
At one point, I was faced with a spellcaster who bore more than a passing resemblance to the Grim Reaper. He spewed fireballs and would teleport whenever I tried to hit him with melee attacks. Considering how weak Fidget’s spells were on their own, the battle became a challenge of carefully using Dust Storm to amplify my magic while rolling around to dodge the explosions of fire.
Fighting without getting hit builds up chains. The higher your chain goes, the more experience you get. Dust starts off the game with all of his combos in place, and extra abilities are gained by finding fancy glowing orbs, so I was curious as to the benefits of leveling up. Leveling up allows you to allocate skill points into upgrades to health, attack, defense, and Fidget’s magic. Naturally, I put everything into attack.
Dust: An Elysian Tail will be released this on XBLA this summer as part of Microsoft’s "Summer of Arcade" promotion. A price has not yet been announced.
Food for Thought:
1. While the demo I played only hinted at the game’s more exploratory aspects, Dust is structured like and has a couple of nods to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Dust’s double jump has him sprouting wings like Alucard, numbers popped out of enemies every time I hit them, and I was able to equip recovery items (like a roasted turkey) to LB to use on the fly.
2. The game’s story is being kept under wraps, but the dialogue between Dust, Fidget, and his sentient sword was pretty funny, especially considering that it was being used as tutorial. One of my favorite lines was Fidget’s description of an enemy: "It has evil knife hands!"
3. The full game will have four difficulties: Casual, Normal, Hard, and Insane. If the demo looks this chaotic, I can’t wait to see what the game looks like on the hardest difficulty.