Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Dust: An Elysian Tail (PlayStation 4)

Dustylvania: Sword of the Amnesiac

Masterpieces tend to come from unexpected places, with many winners of the Academy Awards for Best Picture sometimes being obscure, even low-budget films. One could say the same of videogames, with designer Dean Dodrill not exactly being a household name regarding gaming, to the point where he lacks a Wikipedia article. He was in the process of creating an animated film, Elysian Tail, although a decision ultimately came about to convert it into a videogame, Dust: An Elysian Tail, which took three and a half years to complete, and initially saw release on Microsoft platforms, although it spread to others such as the PlayStation 4. Was the conversion from film to game a wise choice?

The eponymous protagonist, Dust, awakes in a forest meadow, approached by the sentient sword, the Blade of Ahrah, and its respective guardian, a Nimbat (sort of a flying feline species) named Fidget, with no memory of his past, thus embarking on a quest throughout a world populated by anthropomorphs to regain his memories. The storyline does have some derivative elements, although I definitely appreciated the anthropomorphic cast, and there are some quirks such as the fact that all NPCs with whom Dust can interact have names and unique designs, and there are notes he retrieves throughout the game that provide supplemental backstory. Overall, the narrative is a definite draw to the game, and contains clear direction and sound pacing.

Fortunately, solid gameplay backs the narrative experience, with Dust battling the various adversaries whom he encounters in real-time combat, with several different gameplay options such as the ability to hold buttons to make the battle system feel significantly less button-mashy with automatic attacks, with moves such as standard sword slashes and twirling his blade. Fidget can also contribute to combat by expelling balls of light or later on, flames or lightning, with which Dust can combine his blade twirling to execute special combination moves to devastate the enemy. An Elysian Tail further contains numerous nods towards the Metroidvania gaming subgenre such as eventual acquisition of moves such as sliding and double jumps.

Dust obtains experience for sporadic leveling and money to purchase consumables and materials from shops (where he can sell materials to make them available for purchase, regular restocks allowing him frequently afford the components of equipment recipes he may also obtain from foes). Treasure chests Dust can also unlock with consumable treasure keys that early on are slightly rare, although late in the game I had no problem keeping a good supply, and cages requiring numerous keys to unlock can also release entities that grant him permanent health increases. Bosses further impede Dust’s progress at points in the storyline, and with things such as selectable difficulty and a fair endgame, combat in An Elysian Tail is near-note perfect.

The game also interacts well with players, given the aforementioned Metroidvania elements and maps showing the various connected areas of each navigable region, and while some may protest the lack of minimaps within each specific “chamber”, one can argue that such a setup adds to the potential challenge, and one can definitely make it through the standard storyline without referencing the internet, with flags clearly indicating the next plot points. The menus are also easy, and one major quick within the chief interface is that when selecting recipes to formulate new equipment, Dust can instantly purchase materials from the one-stop shop without him needing to visit tents indicating said stores. Aside from the rare crash (although save points are mercifully frequent), interaction excels.

Western RPGs tend not to have very memorable soundtracks, although the positives in An Elysian Tail’s aural aspect very much outweigh the negatives, with plenty of nice music that definitely fits the various areas, is never out of place, and contains great instrumentation. The sound effects are naturally fitting as is expectant of a contemporary videogame, and voice acting is present, Dust and the various voiced luminaries he encounters throughout his quest having appropriate audible speech, with nary a weak performance. There are occasions where the sound largely depends upon ambience, but otherwise, Dust is largely an aural delight.

The game is further a visual delight, as one would expect from a videogame that originated as a fledgling animated film, with superb art direction for Dust and the other named characters, none appearing to be palette swaps of one another. Some, however, might damn the enemy design to consist of reskins, although as enemies of the same base appearance close to one another in each area have the same stats, this actually prevents the adversarial visual direction from becoming excessively repetitive, and they still look amazing. The environments are further bright and colorful, with the effect of the foreground and background shifting at variant speeds adding a semblance of realism, and in the end, An Elysian Tail is visually excellent.

Finally, as is the case with most Metroidvanias, the core game doesn’t last very long, around a minimum of eight hours to get through the main storyline, although things such as acquiring every Trophy and maxing out the map and treasure percentages of each gameplay area can potentially boost playtime to somewhere around thirty-six hours, thus accounting for great lasting appeal.

On the whole, the metamorphosis of Dust: An Elysian Tail from animated film to videogame was indeed a wise decision, as one could consider it a contemporary videogaming masterpiece, given its flawless combat, solid control, well-told narrative, great sound, pretty art direction, and plentiful replayability. Developer Humble Hearts definitely did an excellent job assembling the game, and while the PlayStation 4 version does have some minor technical kinks, it’s very much “required reading” for anyone having a passing interest in the Metroidvania videogame subgenre, and regardless of platform to which players have access, it’s an absolute bucket list title.

This review is based on a playthrough to the end of the main narrative of a copy of the game downloaded to the player’s PlayStation 4, with 30% of Trophies acquired.

The Good:
+Superb combat with different gameplay settings.
+Great control.
+Excellent narrative.
+Solid sound.
+Beautiful visual direction.
+Plenty lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-May crash a time or two.

The Bottom Line:
The change from animated film to videogame was definitely a great decision.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation 4
Game Mechanics: 10/10
Controls: 9.0/10
Story: 9.5/10
Music/Sound: 9.5/10
Graphics: 9.5/10
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: 8-36 Hours

Overall: 10/10

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