It’s crazy to think it’s been six years since Dean Dodrill’s enchanting anthropomorphic action-RPG first slashed its way into our lives. Back when Xbox 360 - of all places - was the place to be for up and coming indie talent, Dust: An Elysian Tail emerged as a bright new addition to the Metroidvania genre long before it became the overcrowded corner of the industry it is today. So, considering it’s appeared on every platform known to man (kitchen sinks included), it’s finally time for this memorable gem to make its mark on the Nintendo Switch.
It’s a testament to Dodrill’s talent that you really wouldn’t know this was a game first released in 2012. The speed and precision of its combat - which offers you a seemingly simple set of moves that gel together to create a flurry of fluid combos - still feels empowering from the opening moments to the final boss fight. The art style - falling somewhere between Studio Ghibli production and a ‘90s Disney animated movie - brings every corner of its world to life in a way that simply refuses to date. In an age where so many developers opt for pixel art over anything else, the game's cartoonish aesthetic is as refreshing as it was on Xbox Live Arcade all those years ago.
If you’ve never played Dust: An Elysian Tail before (seriously, where have you been?) then you’re in for a treat. The game follows the journey of the titular Dust, a cat-like warrior who awakens with a serious case of memory loss (you know, as heroes tend to do in these sort of situations). After discovering a sentient sword called the Blade of Arah - and its guardian, a wise-cracking flying critter called Fidget - our feline hero heads out to recover his memories and, time permitting, save the land from the armies of the evil General Gaius.
It’s not the kind of story that’s going to break any great traditions or shed any notable fantasy tropes, but it’s kept from falling into mediocrity by a mostly on-form voiceover cast and decent dialogue. When matched with the striking visuals, you’ll find Dust, Fidget and Arah make an intriguing team while most of the NPCs you meet feel like actual characters rather than stock quest-givers. It also means you’re more likely to keep up with the story, since you’re less likely to skip through dialogue exchanges.
The meat and potatoes of the Dust experience - yes, we’re finally talking combat - remains and it’s a rip-roaring example of how to give the player a simple set of moves that offer enough options to make them feel truly powerful. You can slash your sword with ‘Y’ while ‘X’ performs a Dust Attack. On its own, this is a marginally powerfully spinning move that can grief enemies if they stray into its AOE. Fidget can also fire a few bursts of energy with ‘A’. On their own, these moves aren’t that powerful - that is until you start chaining them together. Then the real fun begins.
Pressing ‘A’ then holding ‘X’ will turn Fidget’s mostly harmless attack into a fiery barrage of projectile death as your spinning blade sends them ricocheting around the screen. You can also dash around the screen by jumping and pressing ‘X’ - perfect for tracking and punishing the myriad flying enemies the game will throw at you throughout. You can even press ‘Y’ while in the air to slash enemies some more, or ‘X’ again to catch a foe and slam them to the ground. The caveat that stops you from just spamming your Dust Attack ad nauseam is a timer that will heavily damage Dust if he uses this attack in its many forms for too long.
If Dust starts to glow red and the screen starts to shake, you’ll need to let go and rest for a few seconds. It’s a neat way to force you to economise your offence, and with the power to dash left and right (with ‘ZL’ or ‘ZR’ respectively, or by moving the right analog stick) you always have options to evade attacks if you’re paying enough attention. You can even parry any enemy attack by pressing ‘Y’ just as an enemy strike connects; doing so will briefly stun a foe, which can make a big difference when you’re facing one of Dust: An Elysian Tail’s many giant baddies.
As a Metroidvania-style game with a heavy dose of RPG mechanics, there are all the hallmarks you’d expect from a 2D action-platformer. Every region of the game is broken into separate areas, each with their own multi-tiered sections that hold secrets and chests that can only be reached once you’ve unlocked a new ability and returned later to retrieve them. You’ll gather XP and level up, then spend the gems you earn to increase all your usual stats from your health bar to the damage you dish out. They’re not systems that rewrite the formula, but they do the job when it comes to quantifying all that combat into tangible progress.
It’s still a shame those RPG mechanics fail to bring anything notably different to the game’s engaging formula - compared to the refreshing precision of its combat and the enchanting direction of its art style, it’s one of the few areas that feels a little too safe. Also, Dust: An Elysian Tail’s boss battles are still a bit of a letdown. They’re not terrible, just a little uninspiring, which is a shame considering how much fun it is to chain a fluid combo of death on regular enemies.
While a handful of legacy problems persist onto Nintendo Switch, those issues aren't enough to conceal Dust: An Elysium Tail’s true quality. With a beautiful world to explore, an intriguing cast of characters and a combat model that’ll make you feel like you're starring in an anthropomorphic version of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, this is an indie gem that’s still as fun and rewarding as it was when it first slashed its way onto the scene - despite some small niggles.