Back at PAX East, we dispatched one of our intrepid reporters over to Microsoft’s sprawling booth, and he came back to us with wondrous tales of Kinect and Minecraft. I’m told a metroidvania-style game called Dust was on display there. I didn’t see it. Mostly what I remember seeing was the back of the heads of many people who were looking at Dust. Rather than throwing a couple of elbows, I moved on. As a result, my first glimpse of Dust was when I started up the review copy we’d been sent. Let’s see how it went.
In a word, gorgeous. In two words, utterly gorgeous. Now, I’m biased, I realize. As I’ve said more times than I can count, I love cel-shaded artwork, and this game uses it masterfully. Every aspect of it is dripping with the best aspects of animation: high-detail backgrounds, individual frames drawn with crisp detail. I’ve seen that in plenty of games though. What floors me about Dust is loving care applied to every aspect. Let’s pick one thing to focus on—say… Fidget the flying-talking-weasel-cat-thing. In the cut scenes, we’re treated to a screen-sized animation of her, wings flapping with motion blur, eyes blinking, and her whole body drifting up and down with subtle motions of her arms and legs. There’s nothing static about her. Her lips may not sync word for word, but, like anime, her mouth flaps when she’s talking and stops when she isn’t. And then the mood of the cut-scene changes and there she is, completely redone in an irritated pose, with all of the same subtleties. And then it changes again, and we see her terrified, or smug, or distraught. Each one done with the same care. Heck, even during gameplay the details are heaped on. Her wings are constantly flapping, her body leaning into each change in direction. Travel a bit too near to a powerful breeze and Fidget’s got to beat her wings furiously to keep up.
“Sure,” you may say, “they would do that for the main characters, but what about the faceless town-filler?” Same deal. Every character I ran into seemed to have been treated with the same level of detail. Attitudes, poses, animations, all matching the character’s disposition. Now, it helps that the characters of this game are anthropomorphic animals. It is easy to make a character distinctive when you have the option of making him some kind of green coyote or red bunny. That should in no way diminish lushness and vibrance present in each and every frame. Layered on top of these traditional visuals are a few digital touches. Activating the “Dust Storm” attack fills the screen with a windy distortion. Fidget chucks some projectiles into the mix to cover the screen in lightning, sparks, etc. There are lighting effects in dark areas and various other game standards, too.
In terms of UI, the quality remains. Bonus experience floats in the air in the spot that you earned it before heading up to the compact corner display. A map with indicators of things like treasures, markets, goals, and other vital navigational conveniences is in the upper righthand corner in metroid tradition. Damage counts explode out of enemies, and health bars follow them around beneath their feet. If it is a really important fight, a big fat bar shows up along the bottom of the screen for easy tracking of the amount of smackdown left to lay.
To give you an idea of how hard it was for me to come up with something resembling a flaw with the visuals, after several hours of gameplay, here’s what I came up with: Sometimes there is a platform in the background that I think I can jump on.
Dust isn’t a one-trick pony. It could probably have ridden its way to a solid 8/10 on visuals alone, but the gameplay is, if anything, just as notable. I’ve already mentioned the Metroidvania pedigree, so there are a few things you can figure out from that: Massive map with areas that can frequently be revisited, unlockable abilities that make more parts of the level accessible, and so on and so on. Really, though, if I had to quickly sum up the game as a whole, I’d say it was Castlevania: Symphony of the Night + Shank (or perhaps Dishwasher: Dead Samurai). From the very start of the game, you’re slicing and dicing enemies by the half dozen. A hit and total damage counter shows up after the first blow and keeps track until the enemies lay a hand on you or you haven’t sliced any flesh in a while. Different button presses trigger combos that have legitimate utility, too. Launches get you and at least one enemy up off the ground to do some juggling without being caught up in the melee down below. Throws and slams lock up an enemy and do damage to those unlucky enough to be gathered at the point of impact. As in most action games with a crowd-fighting focus, you’ve got a “slicy-dicey buzz saw of death” maneuver called the “Dust Storm” but even this has had a cleverness injection. If you tap B a few times, Fidget will toss some projectiles with can then be sucked into the tornado of doom and enhanced into bolts of lightning or pillars of flame. To keep you from just standing there and waiting for people to walk into your twirling blades, the dust storm will eventually hurt you if you keep using it. Throw in a quick item button to handle healing and status-effect treatment, and a timing-based counter-attack mechanic, and you’ve got a marvelously streamlined, non-stop action tour de force. Even the save points don’t require you to stop while you use them, plopping your progress in a quick save slot as you pass through with nary a break from the action.
Beyond the battle are elements I normally associate with RPGs or MMOs. You level up, and get skill points to apply. (Interestingly, the game requires you to do so in at least a moderately balanced way. The max stat can only be four more than the minimum stat.) Virtually every character has got a quest for you, from the usual item-grind and rescue mission to achievement-style quests like “get 1000-hit combo.” You can collect materials and blueprints to craft new items, and selling at least one of any item to a store will allow them to stock it so that you don’t have to spend 8 hours chopping up imps to get enough hides for the new vest you’ve had your eye on. The toughest part of the game for me was health management. Barring the odd enhancement, your health does not recover on its own (perish the thought!) so you’re left restoring it the old-fashioned way: eating handfuls of warm pretzels and cupcakes. Like everything else in the game, the menu of life-giving comestibles is vast.
Though I’ve not beaten it, the length looks to be heading easily toward the 8 hour mark, even if you don’t spend time tracking down the keys to activate the quick-time locks for the cages and chests that are scattered around the world. This is one of those rare games that may have worked its way into my post-review gameplay rotation.
The music in this game is mood and setting appropriate, but I choose to spend this section talking about the one part of the game that almost lost me: the dialogue. First off, to their credit, there is just as much depth here as elsewhere. Individual roles are voiced as a multicultural menagerie of quickly characterized roles, and every line of dialogue and exposition is spoken out loud. As seems to have been the case with so much else, anime seems to be a major influence here. Heaps of spoken exposition, loads of angsting about this and that, and much epic talk of good and evil. The one that was initially more than I could bear was Fidget. She’s got the typical squeaky-voice-of-cuteness, and spouts precious and sassy comments from scene one. I could see myself hating her by the end, but I’ll be darned if the performance didn’t win me over. Of course, it helps that the game has above average writing.
More anime influence here. A mysterious stranger awakes with no memory of his past. He discovers a mystical talking sword, and its “guardian”, a nimbat (that would be Fidget). They set off on a journey to find out why he awakened, who he was, and what needs to be done. Along the way there are many wrongs to right. Slowly you’ll learn more about what’s going on in the world, like a withering drought, and an army marching the land. Good stuff, but fairly standard really. Or is it? There were parts that surprised me. For one, it dispenses with some video game cliches. Even if you do your job perfectly, not every tragedy can be averted. One in particular hit me as quite a wake up call. Another was the fact that every character you run into is named, has a story, and is consistently characterized. My favorite thing that sets the story apart, though, is the humor. There are tons of 4th wall breaking gags, from Fidget panicking and telling you to mash the buttons, asking if you’ve remembered to save recently when contemplating jumping into a dangerous area, or warning others to stay behind, lest Dust accidentally chop them up. “Have you SEEN the SCREEN? His sword is all VSSSHFFHASHSHFS!” I mean, seriously, one of the health items is “Mysterious Wall Chicken”, an unexplained chicken that bursts forth fully cooked whenever you break a wall. It is a fun little nod to… well, each of the unusually high number of games that hide meat in the architecture.
Dust is a gem, no doubt about it. It looks, sounds, and plays brilliantly. Excellent work, all around.
10/10: Dust is a true masterpiece with exceptional gameplay, bottomless depth, and gorgeous artwork.