Dust: An Elysian Tail Review: Auteur Theory

Dust: An Elysian Tail is unique even by indie game standards. Dean Dodrill, who had almost no experience in game design, computer programming, or story writing, designed it almost entirely by himself.
Knowing that fact along makes it shocking that this game’s mechanics work as well as they do. The juggle heavy combat is simplistic, but responsive, and the RPG elements are deeper than most other XBLA games.
From a narrative perspective though, Dust has some serious pacing issues, and a glut of dialogue performed by irritating characters. For every great moment of story telling comes many more moments of overacted melodrama. Because Dodrill was the sole creator, he could put whatever he wanted in the game, and however much of it that he pleased. Auteur theorists may be pleased, but all I could think was that some editing would’ve helped greatly.
In Dust, you play as, well, Dust. Joining the annals of amnesiac protagonists, Dust awakens in a Wonderlandian forest with no recollection of how he got there, why here is there, or who he even is. A magical sword named Ahrah and its winged keeper Fidget find Dust and tell him that he is the chosen one to wield one of the Blades of Elysium and bring order back to the land. A great war between two factions has raged for years, and Dust must find a way to end it and figure out his past.
Much of your time spent with Dust focuses on killing monsters and other evildoers with Ahrah. Dust only has two or three main combos and a whirlwind attack on his own. Use Fidget’s projectile attacks with the whirlwind however, and things get really interesting. The whirlwind causes the normally puny fireballs to explode across the screen, racking up the combo counter and experience bonus quickly. There is a fluidity to combat here that can’t be understated. Dust is incredibly agile, able to jump from side to side to dodge incoming attacks or high into the sky to continue slicing up enemies. To put it simply, fighting feels good in Dust.

The world of Dust is also of high quality. The soft focused style evokes a lushness and color palette not seen often in games. Teal, purple, yellow, and orange all work in ways that most other contemporaries don’t dare attempt. There is a small amount of exploration, helped along by a map system cribbed from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Sadly, the character animations also look like they were taken from the PS1, which is jarring in front of the meticulously detailed environments and abundant HD particle effects.
The story here is clearly inspired by SNES and Playstation era RPGs, and anime. The focus is on surprisingly dark themes such as death and loss. The side quests are where most of the whimsical and goofy writing comes out. As you travel the Elysian lands, the lesson that all things will eventually die is married with pretty well characterized quest givers.
One of Dust’s greatest failings is how such heavy and poignant story content is buried beneath a surplus of dialogue delivered by nearly every character. I don’t even care that all the characters are anthropomorphic animals. That’s fine. But the endless amount of talking is unforgivable. When it isn’t grating—Fidget’s unfunny attitude never hits the mark—it is just pointless. The game stops the action for literally every interaction. Hitting up the store for some health items? Well prepare to hear the shady shop-keep spout some nonsense every single time. At a certain point, I just quit listening and skipped as much talking as possible.
And then there’s the last hour of the game, which is quite simply terrible. Forget that the story takes a complete right turn and refocuses on characters that are either introduced entirely too late or not characterized well before hand. The real killer is a difficulty spike leading up to the final boss, and the final boss itself. Enemies suddenly gain the ability to block your attack chains, bringing what used to be a great sense of combat momentum and fluidity to a full stop. Oh, and good luck buying enough health items to make it past the final confrontation where one strike eliminates ¾ of your health bar.
I have a feeling that plenty of people will like Dust more than I did. There is a huge amount of content here for $15, and who knows, maybe some folks actually like Fidget’s annoying voice. Ultimately, I found the game sloppy and amateurish, which is to be expected from a first effort. Dodrill has a lot of promise, and Dust isn’t a complete waste of time at all. There are plenty of moments where the story and gameplay mesh, but there are also plenty of moments where the action gets bogged down in melodramatic, snarky, or just plain boring dialogue. Give this guy a team of 10 other developers, and there could be greatness in the future.


Dead Girl Derby

A group of about 20 roller derby players circle around the River Roll Skate Center rink, all squished together in a tight troupe of helmets, pads, and pantyhose. Most all of the women have fierce looks of concentration on their faces.

Suddenly, two of the skaters become tangled and fall to the floor with a hard smack. As they untwine themselves, both laugh it off and continue skating.

At practice lightheartedness is expected, but roller derby is a full contact sport. In a few months, these two athletes will be knocking each other down with malice in their eyes.

Since 2009, Dead Girl Derby has grown from 20 members in two teams to over 100 members in four teams. The women meet three times a week for training in Riverside, where coaches build their endurance and skating technique.

Deadly Sirens Coach Jeff McKee is a founding member of the league. “It’s like getting married into a huge family,” said McKee. “Roller derby isn’t so much a sport but a lifestyle.”

Two key parts of Dead Girl Derby are outfits and nicknames. All the women are decked out in fishnets, short shorts, and team jerseys. Skaters get to show some individualism with names such as Pippi Strongblocking and Lil’ Red Wrecking Hood.

Dead Girl Derby is currently in the middle of their two month training period, where new recruits and veterans get to learn the rules of derby and practice skills like, “Booty blocking”, “Shoulder bumping”, and “Whipping.”

In Modern Athletic Derby Endeavor rules, five players from each team are on the rink at any given time. Each team has a Jammer, a Pivot, and three blockers. As the blockers circle the rink in pack formation, the Jammers try to lap them in order to score points for each player on the opposing team passed.

For Sally Jackson, a.k.a. Alevya N Payne, it’s the contact and empowerment that keeps her coming back season-to-season. “The good blocks and bumps and the ‘I’m going to hit you and send you to the stands’-that’s what brings me to this,” she said. “Derby changes the way you do things. You feel more in control, you become more determined in everything.”

As with any contact sport, roller derby dishes out plenty of injuries. Jackson broke both her tibia and fibula early last season, forcing a medical leave of absence for surgery and recovery. Other recent injuries include Ashley Puderbaugh, otherwise known as LL Kill J, who broke her elbow in practice and then hurt it again during last season’s final bout. As Jackson puts it, “It isn’t a matter of if, but when. Something will happen.”

With such high risks, determination is a key trait for any roller derby player. Shotgun Sheila’s coach and former player, Lindsey Wyatt said, “They have to be willing to accept criticism. I run a low drama, low stress team.”

Wyatt became a coach because her knees couldn’t withstand the abuse, but she still wanted to be a part of the Dead Girl family. The league is unique because there are no cuts during recruitment. “We’ll train anybody,” said Wyatt. “It’s open to the speed skater who is looking for a new hobby and the girl who hasn’t ever skated.”

Word of mouth has increased the member count for Dead Girl Derby, and may lead to new opportunities for players in the coming seasons. “We’re flexible and looking to grow,” said McKee, “we talked about forming a Midwest conference with teams from Missouri, Texas, and Oklahoma.”

Roller derby is fiercely competitive, but the close bond between all the players is strong. Jackson said, “A girl who joins this league is going to have a hundred new sisters.” Bouts start in February, so Kansas City derby fans will get to see the Dead Girls special bond in action soon.