It's very easy to get swept along by beauty, especially if you're a nostalgist and the pretty thing in question is a two-dimensional brawler that harks back to the heyday of the Amiga, the era of parallax scrolling and sprites, joysticks and better times. Dust: An Elysian Tail effortlessly taps into that still-furtive part of my own brain, but it has a harder time winning over the part of my cerebellum that's suffered through a thousand bad games since those glorious yesteryear days.
This flat-planed brawler, the last of Microsoft's Summer of Arcade for 2012, has a lot more going on between its furry ears than it has any right to. With sweeping visuals and vibrant backgrounds, the development team at Humble Hearts could have just shoved in a one-button control system and still found a captivate audience, even if it was solely comprised of furries. Instead, though, there's a reasonably deep and technical fighting system underpinning the action; one which owes a debt to the likes of The Dishwasher and Viewtiful Joe before it.
As Dust, the spectacularly emo protagonist of this Saturday morning cartoon that never was, you can smack seven shades of sprites out of anything in your way, chaining huge combos, tossing baddies into the sky with launchers, and landing savage coup-de-grace finishers. It's not particularly difficult to rack up huge combo numbers against less-than-intelligent foes, and for a good few hours the raw satisfaction of the combat is enough to drag you from one sumptuous background to the next.
Unfortunately, Dust: An Elysian Tail does show its hand a little too early, becoming familiar and repetitive like many of the classic brawlers it shares its heritage with. There's only so much stuff-hitting one furry can do. So, to flesh out the experience, Humble Hearts has elected to infuse the brawling with some RPG tropes. There are side quests which can be picked up from the anthropomorphic folks wandering out the townships (almost all of which involve going somewhere and hitting things), there are secret areas and treasure troves, and there's even fairly comprehensive crafting system built in.
However, while these ideas do help to break up the monotony, they also feel wholly superfluous. It's entirely possible to blast through the game without ever crafting anything, as the enemies never really evolve beyond the 'parry and destroy' rhythm you learn during the opening 30 minutes. And the story itself, while some might find it charming and endearing, turned my stomach. I struggle with anything overly twee at the best of times, and this goes so far as to make Namco's saccharine Tales series look like The Road.
Thankfully it only infects the action sparingly, and the voiceover work can be skipped.
So, is its inherent visual beauty enough to see Dust: An Elysian Tail through? Just about. At 1200 MSP it's a little steep, but this is so clearly a labour of love, even if it's a love and passion I don't share. Still, the aesthetic saves it: seeing the game play out on a crisp HD panel is a thing of genuine spectacle; the promise of the interactive cartoon we all wished for back in the 90s.
There are better 2D brawlers out there, better ones on Xbox LIVE Arcade in fact, but probably none prettier. And it seems like that's probably just enough to make my weird old brain smile.
Version Tested: Xbox 360