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Dust: An Elysian Tail


Matt G
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Just posted this on my blog and promised myself I'd put something up here for criticism next time I got around to finishing it.

I held off from posting my thoughts on this until I had time to finish the game itself but in the end I'm not sure it made all that much difference. My overall opinion had pretty much been formed by the time I reached its final level, so going through the motions of defeating the last boss and watching its ending was more of a formality. It did however coincide with the publishing of an article on Gamasutra with an extensive post mortem of the game, which provided some new insights on the game and eventually pushed me to finish this off.

I'd been waiting for this game ever since I saw its initial trailer, which did little more than showcase the quality of its animation. In some ways it shares common ground with Fez, being a project driven by a single man with a retro feel to it, which at some points looked like it might not see the light of day. After learning all of this, I definitely wondered to myself if its creator would have the kind of focus and broad range of skills necessary to bring it to fruition. It was largely unclear what kind of game it would be to begin with and discovering a little down the line that it was to be a 'Metroidvania' piqued my interest again. As much as I might have enjoyed a linear hack and slash platformer, the knowledge that it would have that exploration element somehow gave me more confidence that it could be something special, if it was aiming that little bit higher to begin with.

So when I finally got my hands on it I was initially overjoyed with it. The controls were tight and satisfying, while the animation was just as good as it had initially appeared. It seemed that for once the universally positive reviews it received were well founded. I was also impressed with some tweaks to the traditional exploratory 2D platformer format, with areas divided up into chunks that could easily be selected from a main world map. It may have detracted from the idea of a huge open world but for someone like myself with limited gaming time it felt very welcome.

I also found it to be surprisingly funny. It might not appeal to everyone but it doesn't so much break the fourth wall as assume there isn't one. It's quite happy to talk about gaming terms with no in game rationalisation, rather than use clunky dialogue which ties itself in knots. I particularly enjoyed being told to "mash the buttons!" and later on having someone comment on how I was flying around the screen. It's also very open about its influences and pays tribute to other games along the way. Knowing nothing beforehand about its 'cameos', unlocking a cage early on presented me with a familiar face and what may well be my favourite achievement for a long time. And Castlevania fans will surely appreciate the fact that you can collect 'Mysterious Wall Chickens' throughout your adventure.

This irreverent humour and clear love for its own influences really kept me going and interested to follow the story. A lot of people have commented on finding it difficult to get over the anthropomorphised 'furry' characters but it wasn't something that really crossed my mind to begin with. Even the stereotypical annoying sidekick has a lot to offer, something that was a big surprise to me - similar to how the new version of Thundercats has created a version of Snarf that doesn't annoy me to my core! I can see why it might put some people off though, especially in combination with the rather simplistic animation of its full screen 'talking heads' and some amateurish voice acting. Interesting to think that it was a last minute bug fix away from not having any voice acting at all!

In some respects I felt that although the game's story wasn't amazing, it was what kept me engaged with the game to begin with, especially as there was little new in the way of skills for a long time. The pace of upgrades was very slow to be honest, I have to say that I was aching for a double jump upgrade from fairly early on and by the time I reached the end I was surprised that I hadn't really picked up anything new, just the basics you would expect from the first half of a Castlevania game. I expected there to be something later on that would become the game's signature final move, but then I suppose that you already had this in the form of the 'Dust Storm' ability. I can see why this was handed out so early on but it did also feel like it brought combat progress to a halt, with no more new combos to learn and no reason to break away from the basic moves that got the job done after this point.

I also felt that this lack of new abilities started to make the game drag a little in the middle. One section that really didn't work for me was a fetch quest across a huge graveyard, going to 4 different mansions. I actually found the presence haunting these buildings pretty creepy but the strict process of it appearing whenever you entered a mansion made it very formulaic and lost its effectiveness. I would much rather have had one huge mansion to explore, with the ghost showing up at 'random' points to keep you on edge. The blandness of the enemies in this area didn't help either - especially when one enemy existed only to create more zombies, teleporting out of the way when trying to hit it with any physical attacks, forcing you to rely on your rather underdeveloped magic attacks.

There were lots of enemies to wade through again when you reach the end of the game but here that is tempered with the sheer amazement of how much stuff is on screen and wondering why your Xbox isn't falling over and crying. Playing through on normal difficulty I found the last boss to be the only real challenge the game had, sadly not in a particularly good way. You had to beat him what felt like one too many times and rather than work out a gradually developing pattern it was more of a case of repeating the same thing while throwing tons of enemies at you to make it awkward. It was a shame how much filler there is to wade through before you can fight him if you go off to clear up some areas after your first attempt, which I found necessary. If you reach the last level and a random attack can still put you in any danger, then I would advise you to go away and grind some more as you are guaranteed to suffer a few hits in the final battle that are completely unavoidable.

So while my initial feelings were of total amazement that this was made by one person, by the end I started to feel it was showing its limitations in that respect. The lack of anything new past the early stages of the game and some degree of padding felt like things that could have been improved with a few more people working on it. But it was also interesting to read about aspects that were cut from the game already, including an additional final chapter, and I think it's probably down to the game suddenly getting a concrete release date that it made it here at all. I could see this being the kind of project that its creator would keep tweaking and adding to until it was perfect, with it never being truly ready in his eyes. What we've ended up with isn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination but it is still an incredible achievement - and should perhaps serve as a reminder that almost anyone can make a game if they're driven enough.

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You really, really need to edit your work. This passage is as good as any to demonstrate my point:

In some respects I felt that Although the game's story wasn't amazing was average, it was what kept me engaged with the game to begin with, especially as there was little new in the way of skills for a long time. The pace of upgrades was very slow - to be honest, I have to say that I was aching for a double jump upgrade from fairly early on and by the time I reached the end I was surprised that I hadn't really picked up anything new, just but the basics you would expect from the first half of a Castlevania game

If readability is something you strive for, you've got to be more disciplined. Start by finishing the article first, then give it a thorough once-over, removing any extraneous language. Keep doing that and eventually you'll start editing yourself on the fly, at which point you'll be knocking out lovely, flowing prose with minimal effort.

Just be honest with yourself about what language your article absolutely can't do without, and dispose of the rest.

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If readability is something you strive for, you've got to be more disciplined. Start by finishing the article first, then give it a thorough once-over, removing any extraneous language. Keep doing that and eventually you'll start editing yourself on the fly, at which point you'll be knocking out lovely, flowing prose with minimal effort.

Just be honest with yourself about what language your article absolutely can't do without, and dispose of the rest.

That's something I've read about and do attempt but I still need a lot of practice at. Probably a combination of still being in that mindset of 'every word I write is precious' and having had this hanging around for ages so I just wanted to be done with it. I think I edit things best if I sleep on it once I've finished the basics and try to look at it later as if I was reading it for the first time.

Cheers for the feedback though, I probably wouldn't have looked at it that way otherwise.

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So when I finally got my hands on it I was initially overjoyed with it.

There's nothing here to be precious about. Better to be your own worst critic than your own biggest fan.

It sounds to me like you don't really want to write reviews. That's fine, by the way, because I get the same impression from just about every review I read in this folder. I stopped writing reviews once I realised how bad they were, but also how much of an essayist I was becoming; working without the constraints of the review format was liberating and writing became enjoyable again. I haven't looked back.

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I don't know that I am specifically trying to write reviews I suppose, my blog is just generally to get my thoughts down on paper and out of my head. I do generally enjoy the process of writing and editing but I guess sometimes I struggle to finish things off into a piece that I think someone would want to read as a whole, whether it's supposed to be a review or otherwise.

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