Published by Microsoft Studios
Platform(s): XBox 360/One, Playstation 4, Windows, Linux & Mac
Developed by Humble Hearts
Retails via Digital Download
Steam for $16.99 (CDN) -|- XBox Marketplace for $14.99 (USD)
This top rated action platformer stands head and shoulders above its competition and peers. While there are role-playing mechanics, there are no story affecting choices to be made here. Dean Dodrill has taken the only risk that matters: Stating the truth. Represented by races of anthropomorphic characters, this is a tale of war and choices.
Meet Dust, fair and temperamental, ruthless and innocent. Sound familiar? We all know him, because he’s us. He has little memory and even less understanding, but is driven to fight and it will be for good. Joined by the adorable, emotional barometer flying-guide Fidget and the moral compass Arhah, your role as a player is to explore, watch and participate.
First released in 2012 on the XBox 360 by way of Microsoft’s Indie Arcade, Dust: AET has since drifted out to other platforms and cemented its success on Steam and the PC scene to the tune of over a million sales. The PC release is an expertly crafted port of the console title and features seamless support for keyboard, mouse and gamepad, among other ‘unnecessary’ niceties such as adjustable user interface.
Some developers throw effects at the wall without much thought, but Dean has selected particles and visuals that best suit the action and intended emotional target. A trained animator, his skills and knowledge bring Dust: AET into sharp focus with storybook precision. Likewise, Dust’s swordplay is paired with Fidget’s projectiles and a Arhah’s ‘Dust Storm’ enabling flexible and dynamic combat.
This game is optimized for the Windows platform and will run on your underpowered laptop or integrated graphics chipset without compromising the intended experience. At 1080p you will need some serious memory bandwidth to turn up all of the video options as this version takes advantage of potential processing capability. Let’s face it; this isn’t to be played for the frames per second.
Dust: AET is a treasure in every sense. Hyperduck SoundWorks and Alex Brandon have teamed up to composed sweeping orchestral themes that seamlessly emphasize the gorgeous visuals and never wear out their welcome. So rarely does every element of a game come together into so complete a package.
For this critique I started at the hour-and-thirty mark by virtue of save monuments which double as auto-save points that minimize retracing your steps. Dust has by this point protected the town of Aurora and is clearly the hero of the day. He is also gaining strength quickly by means of a level system, equipment and area unlocking abilities.
Traditionally animated games can pose a challenge to those accustomed to ‘instant response’ titles that favor action over realism. Dust’s fighting style and your familiarity with it will directly affect how much punishment you take. A sword swung with the force of a bat is the analogue of the unstoppable force of nature that Dust becomes as you progress.
No, we can’t all be ninja. That’s what buttons are for.
You can ‘mash the buttons’ as Fidget not-so-jokingly suggests, but dedicated gamers will appreciate the nuances of melee attack combos which replenish much needed energy for your Dust Storm and projectile abilities. Dust is a swordmaster, and proper respect has been given to the requirements of the title.
As I’ve mentioned, this is a fully voice acted title. Every NPC has individually recorded lines ‘from every corner of the globe’. Dust is performed by gentle-but-dramatic Lucien Dodge, Fidget by always-child Kimlinh Tran and Arhah by cold and compassionate Edward Bosco. Lesser knowns respect the stage adage: “There are no small parts, only small actors.”
In what is now three complete play-throughs I have only skipped dialogue a handful of times. Where others have seen fit to cut corners, Dean scaled down the scope of Dust: AET to make room for this and it invites more players to be involved. By eschewing gore the principle message of war can be told and not diminished.
The impact of loss, while speaking to Ginger, though Dust does all the talking, makes me feel wary and protective. Every step of the way I am a part of the duality Dust feels, and as determined to see the story to is finale. Every single time. Dust is a warrior on my side of this battle, and I want him to succeed. Without emotional resonance, there is no value.
Daring, no? Dean unselfishly and vicariously admires his own art by means of character dialogue, which is in turn a reflection of the world in which we live. His respect and passion for this planet, our home and his, may not immediately be obvious to the average player, but it is as bold a message as the value of a soul.
Technical quandaries are the extent of its summary faults: Cut scenes may not work correctly if Windows Media Player is not the default presenter for WMV filetype video. Gamepad support is native only to Xbox 360 controllers. Dust is the lone traditionally animated character, which results in an unnatural emphasis on everyone else. Very minor gripes which are–mostly–easily remedied.
I doubt revamping the title with more animation would significantly alter the emotional impact of this classically told tale. While Dean’s original vision of having a progressive town would have added more play time, the essential message of this narrative required event-oriented chapters to give focus in gameplay.
What’s fun: Combat offers plenty of choices. Four difficulty options allows players to control their investment of time in learning game mechanics and its nuances. Voice acting is complete and movie quality, even if not technically of the same grade. Explorers will be pleased with the variety and expanse of levels with logical barriers. Soundtrack enthusiasts will likely want to add this to their library. The ability to level means you control your risk vector. Character design is varied, interesting, and beautiful.
What’s not: This game can be completed in nine hours, twenty if you collect and explore everything there is on offer. Animated cutscenes could be fleshed out with additional frames, but I wouldn’t change their content. The story has cookie cutter elements, but the fact of the matter is all good stories do. There’s no effective age limit here.