Dust: An Elysian Tail opens to a narrator describing the world of Falana as a lone, insurgent fighter takes on an army of opposing foes. Here, the shrouded combatant is mine to control, even though his fate is not. Beyond simple side scrolling movements, the only other action I’m allowed to execute is “wage war,” the game’s bleak designation for the X button.
And so this is what I spent the rest of the game doing.
The labor of (mostly) one man’s love, Dean Dodrill’s Dust follows economically in the footsteps of Vanillaware games like Odin Sphere and Muramasa: The Demon Blade. The result is a 2D hack and slash that’s sumptuously illustrated and memorably scored. Although Dust encourages Metroidvania exploration, requires diligent platforming, and offers plenty of standard RPG fare, its combat is the centerpiece.
The titular Dust is something of a drifting rōnin. Having lost his memory but gained a powerful new sword in its place, he sets out of the Bambi-filled forest where he awakens in order to recover his past. But the sword, it has a name: Argas. This legendary sword is the wise and omniscient puppet master who leads Dust, and the player, through a violently compelling tale of betrayal, persecution, and monstrous brutality.
“Dust’s combat is more like a boxing match that requires quick thinking and constant movement.”
Waging war in Dust is more than simply smashing the X button in thumb-blistering repetition. It is a mode of being in the game that assails you, overcomes your defenses, and brings you fully into Dodrill’s Disney meets Miyazaki wonderland. In addition to the three strike base attack, Dust has two other abilities that are essential to dominating the battlefield.
The first is a sweeping directional lunge performed by pulling the right or left trigger. Somewhere between a conventional feint and a Mega Man X dash, the move doubles both a dodge and counter attack. It would be difficult to overstate just how central nailing the spatial parameters of this move is to enjoying Dust. Flipping back and forth across the screen with grace and precision make battles less about brute force than thoughtful tactics. Without the well implemented maneuver, the fighting system would be reduced to dishing out more damage than you receive. But with it, Dust’s combat is more like a boxing match that requires quick thinking and constant movement.
“A single lightning bolt splits into two or three and fireballs manifest into flaming pillars, ravaging any and all nearby monsters as a series of numerical digits drip rewardingly from their character animations.”
The second important ability is a whirlwind attack that can be used while stationary or in the air. The latter is especially helpful since it allows Dust to fly at enemies, assisted by the loose targeting system, with his sword swinging dangerously overhead like propeller. But the attack’s true power comes as a result of Dust’s side-kick. Fidget, the whimsically orange and white, batwinged bunny, follows Dust because, as Argas’ custodian, she must dutifully watch over the sword and whomever it is that currently wields it.
More important than anything she says is everything she allows Dust to do. Throughout the game Fidget accumulates new magic, which, while weak on its own, can be amplified by Dust’s cyclonic sword attack to devastating effect. A single lightning bolt splits into two or three and fireballs manifest into flaming pillars, ravaging any and all nearby monsters as a series of numerical digits drip rewardingly from their character animations.
Throughout the game, Argas not only controls the Dust’s narrative arc, it also serves as the steely catalyst that accelerates Falana’s inevitable reckoning. When I encountered a village besieged by nefariously colored monsters, mythical talking sword commanded me to “send these foul creatures from this existence.” I did so happily, using the opportunity to test one of my newly minted abilities.
Not much later, however, these actions would be noted and judged by the recently dispatched hoard’s apparent leader. What could be innocent about me, spat the armor clad fiend, when I had “so easily killed [his] children?”
Naturally, when confronted with such unsettling accusations, the only thing left to do was to cut him down, then and there. And his dying words? “The lights of Elysian shine upon me…But can they reach the darkness in you?” Well they were just words; no match for the fury of a my magic-infused whirlwinds. Who needs to take account of themselves, or answer for their actions, when the power to silence dissent feels so immediate and irresistible?
“Genocide is common in video games, but perpetrating it in the land of Falana is one of the more fun and colorful instances of it I’ve encountered.”
Later in the game, having dispatched the rebel monsters’ leader, Fuse, in a beautiful flurry of magical rain droplets, a proverbial traveling merchant explains what led the animal to become so tragically demented. The story is compelling, emotionally touching even. I think I understand. Dust says he understands. “I believe you do not my friend,” retorts the merchant, “but I will not press the matter.” I buy some armor and roasted chickens (+80HP), the matter remains unpressed, and Dust carries on until the next enemy encounter pushes the matter easily from both our minds.
Genocide is common in video games, but perpetrating it in the land of Falana is one of the more fun and colorful instances of it I’ve encountered. Dust’s thoughtful difficulty curve and its monsters’ penchant for hunting in packs leaves the carnage just challenging and chaotic enough to keep it feeling fresh (which is good since enemies regenerate whenever you leave the immediate area). At one point I found an older NPC, Cora, wandering around one of Falana’s worse neighborhoods. “I’ve known these meadows since I was young,” she explains, “There’s not a creature here that could harm me.” She either couldn’t see the monsters roaming everywhere, or willfully refused to acknowledge their existence. Whatever the truth was, it didn’t matter. Within half an hour I’d rid the place of its most dangerous beasts.
As Argas makes sure to explain whenever he can though, the killing in Dust isn’t as indiscriminate as it might at first seem. The beasts we are fighting, he tells me, are all in some way or another creatures who have been corrupted by the darkness. While the sword just knows who is bad and who isn’t, my preferred method for finding out is just to attack something and see if it bleeds arithmetic. When it does, as is most often the case, I know Argas, the instrument of my destructive glee, has made the decision for us. He might be judge and jury, but I am the executioner, left with the enviable task of carrying out his cryptic moral calculus.
“When happens when the music and onscreen action align in this way are moments of aesthetically charged euphoria.”
In this way, he is no more a sword that happens to talk than I am a person who happens to play. We are both tools dedicated to ridding Falana of “evil” by virtue of our specific functions. His is to be my ethical and geographic compass; mine is to shift seamlessly between enemies as I use Fidget’s magic and Argas’ sharp edge to destroy them. And the game makes achieving this zen-like singularity of purpose as inviting as possible. Dodrill’s watercolor skies were brighter and his clay crusted mountains more imposing after I gave myself over to the smooth rhythms of Dust’s combat and exploration.
These rhythms are not just the result of Dodrill’s animation though. The game’s soundtrack, arranged by Hyperduck Studios with additional music by Alex Brandon, injects each animated cloud, tree, or butterfly with a life beyond its flat, two dimensional one . While not as busy or instrumentally diverse as the musical score from Legend of Mana, Dust’s soundtrack packs a similar urgency to that of its distant ancestor, with short but ambient melodies that widen the space between the (sometimes up to twelve) layers of animation.
When happens when the music and onscreen action align in this way are moments of aesthetically charged euphoria. The game’s artsy trapping go from being merely decorative to constituting a unified mix of gameplay elements that help make the combat and exploration what they are (which is absolutely wonderful, in case that wasn’t already clear).
Dust’s journey, after he’s chased down his past and killed everyone thing that got in the way, concludes on a somewhat dissonant note. The final battle is more taxing than any other in the game, and it turns the idea of what redemption requires completely on its head. It turns out that the several beauties of Dust, its combat, art, and music, are built on a less pleasant and much grittier logic around which the story and narrative are organized. When the game refers to the “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” funeral prayer, it’s not making a point about death specifically, but rather the cyclical nature of war. In Falana, like in the real world, actions have equal and opposite reactions.
The game started by asking me to “wage war” by pumping the X button with my thumb. Doing so initiated an exercise in trying to use violence to end violence, to make a few rights our of several wrongs. Even now I’m still not sure what the outcome was. But evaluating it isn’t my job, it’s Argas’, and that’s just fine. I explored, I fought, I avenged. Those were my jobs and I did them splendidly, and I’d happily do them again.