Game Spotlight – Dust; an Elysian Tail

(Dust: An Elysian Tail is available on Steam and XBLA)

I’ll cut to the chase.

Dust; an Elysian Tail is a vertical beat-em-up.  As in, it’s one of those sidescrolling beat-em-up games where you not only go left and right beating up your foes, but you can also combo your enemies way up into the sky, and then all the way back down.

This looks like some kind of super attack that’s hard to pull off and requires some kind of super meter, right?  WRONG.  You can do these kinds of explosions all the time once you get the right projectile element.  And that’s not the only badass thing you’ll be doing once you pick up that mysterious talking sword…

So, let’s start with story.

The game opens with a playable segment wherein the legend of shadowy and merciless warrior is told.  Soon after, you see the hero of the story, the titular Dust, wake up in a clearing in a strange forest with no memory of who he is, where he came from, or how he knows how to use a blade with such grace.  From there unfolds a story about heroism, justice, discrimination and finding and reforging one’s own identity.  It’s really engaging, emotional, and isn’t afraid to get dead serious when it’s appropriate.  And it’s got a downright awesome climax and final act that stuck with me for days afterwards.

By the way, did I mention that it’s all those three things even though everyone is an anthropomorphic animal?  Yeah, yeah, some of you might balk at the idea of there being talking clothed animals in a great story with lots of serious bits to it, but if that’s the case you really need to get over yourselves.

Yes, Dust.  Yes they are.  See?  Even the hero agrees!  Discrimination against anthropomorphic animals is BAD!

The game also loaded with little funny moments, many of them coming from your trusty sidekick and projectile master extraordinaire, Fidget the Nimbat (Yes, Nimbat is actually the name of her species), as well as making gags that poke holes in the fourth wall from time to time.

As for Dust, he’s very expressive and develops rapidly as a character despite his amnesia condition.  It’s honestly great to see another one of those extremely rare amnesiacs who can still remember how to have emotions.  By the time you reach the end of the game, he’s a full on badass and extremely likeable.  The way he bounces off the optimistic and hilarious Fidget, as well as his dead serious talking sword and the variety of other characters you’ll meet works beautifully.

Now, onto gameplay…

The action flows really well, and is a joy to play.  Dust can perform basic sword combos, throw in powerful grabs, knock enemies into the air, and perform a useful twister move (the Dust Storm) in the air and on the ground that’s great for chasing and comboing enemies.  Further, your trusty partner Fidget can fire little weak projectiles that can be amplified to ridiculous levels of usefulness when combined with the Dust Storm.  By combining these sword combos with the projectiles and Dust Storm, you’ll be able to combo the many foes in your path to hell and back.

As to combos, not only are they fun, but they’re rewarding.  The longer your combo, the more bonus EXP you’ll get once the combo naturally ends.  Making long combos is thus one of the best ways to level up.  However, taking a hit during a combo will immediately break your combo and you’ll get no bonus.  And make no mistake, the huge swarms of enemies you’ll face will do everything they can to break that combo and make you rue the day you decided to wake up in a clearing with no memory.

Fortunately, you’ll have a few other useful mechanics at your disposal.  On each level up, you’ll get a “skill gem” that you can allocate to either Attack Power, Health, Projectile Power, or Defense.  This allows for a decent amount of wiggle room on how you play.  Personally, I prioritized defense, since I’m very careless in these kinds of games.  Plus, you can assign purchased and looted healing items to a convenient button to heal with one button press so you don’t need to go into the menu in the middle of a fight to heal (although this is still a valid option).

Finally, there are tons of secrets to find, and lots of quests to complete.  Every area you visit is littered with magical keys and chests, tucked away in various nooks and crannies, many requiring you to return later with new abilities.  By slamming one of the keys into a chest, you’ll enter a brief unlocking minigame, and then be rewarded with a shower of money, healing items, blueprints for armor and rings, and sometimes a whole party of enemies.  Rarely you’ll even find a character from another game hidden away that will be both a funny reference and also boost your maximum health by 5% just for finding them.  As to the quests, there are many of them, usually “bring back X item” or “find X person”.  But more than that, they’re fantastic at helping you get in touch with the world and the characters in it.  Some of them are downright clever in the way they unfold (A certain quest involving a “box” was especially interesting), and are very much worth doing, even just on story value alone.  Although…Make you use the poison ivy when given the option.  Son of a rat deserved it and I’m very upset I didn’t give it to him.  >: P

The game also has absolutely fantastic visuals.  For an indie title, they’re incredibly sharp, colorful and gorgeous to look at, looking great even in the heat of combat.  The game has some SERIOUSLY good art in it.

No Fidget, that’s not a good example!  I know you’re proud of your work, but…

Here’s a much better example of what I’m talking about:

You’ll want to right click on this one and view it fullscreen.  Trust me.

If you think that picture looks good now, you’ll be very impressed to see it in motion.  When I saw this particular vista I literally stopped in my tracks and just admired it for a minute.  There are plenty more great views like this as well.  Archer’s Pass is another particularly impressive place you’ll visit early on, for example.

The only way I can criticize the art is to mention how cluster!@#$y it gets in full on combat.  Yeah, the colorful projectiles and vivid animations and large enemy hordes are nice.  But sometimes I found myself losing track of potential threats to my combo meter when in the thick of combat, with fireballs exploding everywhere and Dust zipping all over the place, and then getting a wolf bite to the tail when I least expected it.

To conclude, Dust: An Elysian Tail is a fantastic game, and a superb beat-em-up action game.  This one comes highly recommended.  If  you’re one of the people who actually played and liked Muramasa The Demon Blade for the Wii, you need to get this game yesterday.


Game Spotlight – Mark of the Ninja

Picture this.

You’re a mercenary type guy.  Your first big job.  Protecting the outer perimeter of your company’s compound on the graveyard shift.  Boring work.  So you’re there, chatting with a buddy about going to a little bar he knows to pick up some chicks after work when suddenly, one of the streetlights goes out.  You spin around, checking the light out, but  nothing seems to be around it.  You turn back to your buddy and…he’s gone.

You yelp in pain as a wooden dart plonks on your helmet.  Growling angrily, you spin around, looking for the source.  It seems to have come from that streetlight you just checked.  So you shine your flashlight up there again and…”HOLYGEEZWHATTHEHELL!”  Your buddy is strung up by a chain, with a large hole hole where his neck used to be.  You scream, firing wildly, and step backwards, until at last your back is safely against a wall…

Sorry, did I say safely?  A pair of hands grab your legs and pull you swiftly into a vent.  You don’t even have time to scream as a blade gets shoved into your head by something with a blood red tattoo all over his face.

Congratulations.  You’ve just been ninja’d by the hero of Mark of the Ninja.

I’ll put this plainly.  I freaking LOVE this game.

I happen to really like stealth games, and this is one of the best ones I’ve played in years.

If the name hasn’t already clued you in, you play a ninja.  A real ninja.  Not one of those kids in orange pajamas whose definition of tactics involves charging into everything head first to kick its ass.

(No offense meant to any Naruto fans.)
(But you have to admit that 95% of that show’s cast don’t behave like actual ninjas.)

No, I mean one of those “sneak around in the shadows and do your job without being seen unless you want to be seen” kinds of ninjas.

Pictured above:  AN ACTUAL NINJA.

The story is somewhat simple, but they make it feel rather interesting.  You’re one of the best and brightest students of Clan Hisomu, one of the last (if not THE last) ninja clans operating in the modern age.  The secret to their success?  A strange ink that comes from a rare desert plant.  When put into a tattoo, they grant the bearer powers of perception and speed…But at a terrible price.  Your mission?  To take revenge on a private military company that violently raided your hidden sanctuary.  There’s more to it than that, obviously, leading up to a phenomenal ending…….Right up until the last 30 seconds, in which they do something that I feel was quite a bit annoying.  Aside from that, it was really well done.

What really sells it is the aesthetics.  Everything looks either vibrant, or dark and inky (like it should, given that it takes place almost exclusively at night).  The world and characters look stunning, and the little story cutscenes really suck you in.  In gameplay, it also helps that they have easy to identify visual cues for everything, making the stealth a joy to play.

Ah yes.  The stealth.  This game plays like a dream most of the time.  Everything feels smooth and natural.  Aside from one or two very specific locations, you can seamlessly go from wall climb to ceiling climb to hookshotting to a perch to dropping into a hiding spot to stealth kill an enemy in perfectly flowing sequence.  And the little visual cues that show you how much noise you’re making, or where an enemy is looking are really intuitive and keep you up to speed with your situation with just a glance.

As for the stealthing itself, there are a huge variety of scenarios you’ll be faced with, each with many solutions.  Do you want to go through, killing only when convenient, and ducking into vents and dropping spike traps for unwitting prey?  Go for it.  Do you want to sneak through peacefully, leaving confused guards, and total darkness in your wake?  You can do that.  Do you want to be an evil version of batman, terrorizing guards into shooting each other, hanging their buddies’ corpses up from lampposts, drinking in their screams of terror and then finally dropping onto them once they are alone and terrified to grant them the mercy of eternal slumber?  Yeah, me too.  😀

You have a ton of tools, ranging from bamboo darts that can take out lights and distract guards, to smoke bombs, spike traps, a grappling hook, and even unlockable ninja styles (read, ninja suits) that change your abilities.  And each environment is a playground full of vents, grappling perches, and various hiding places.  Oh, and plenty of well armed guards and lights that will expose you to the former’s bullets.

While it’s certainly fun to just go through each level willy-nilly, attempting a pure-stealth pacifist run is a huge challenge, even with the ninja suit that’s designed for pure stealth.  But overall, the most fun I’ve had was abusing the terror mechanic.  Certain actions (like making a guard spot a corpse strung up from a grapple point) will cause guards to enter a panic state.  In this state, their motions become erratic and unpredictable, and they’ll shoot at the slightest noise.  While this might seem like a bad thing, it’s actually very beneficial (and fun!).  By carefully luring them around, and provoking them at just the right times, you can make your foes friendly fire each other which is both amusing and very rewarding, points-wise.

As if that weren’t enough, there’s a lot of optional objectives, collectibles, a leaderboard and a new game plus mode that makes the game a lot harder.  As far as stealth games go, that’s pretty good.

As of this weekend (the 21rst to the 24th of March 2013) It’s on sale.  If you like stealth games you really ought to pick this up while you can.  Highly recommended.

Game spotlight: Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines.

Every once in a while a game will come along that will just be so damn GOOD that it deserves to be played by everyone…and yet something or another happens and it just….doesn’t seem to catch the attention it deserves.

Vampire The Masquerade Bloodlines is one of those games.

Basically, it got rushed through final production and came out on the same day as half life 2 (It I remember right).  As a result, the original release was about as buggy as a tropical jungle.  Surprise surprise, the game didn’t sell well at all, the studio folded, and this amazing game was almost lost and forgotten about.

Fortunately, dedicated fans have not only patched almost all the bugs, but they also restored a LOT of the cut content, making this one of the BEST games I have ever played.

How so?  Let me break it down for you all.

Vampire the masquerade Bloodlines (referred to as just “bloodlines” from this point on) is an action RPG with stealth and lots of social interaction.  Basically, it’s Deus Ex with Vampires.  And none of this “sparkles in the sun” silliness.  I’m talking predatory, monstrous, manipulative and nasty vampires coming in many flavours (from the sexy Toreador to insane Malkavians to ugly as hell Nosferatu).

If you woke up with a face like this, you’d hate your unlife too.

The story is pretty riveting, delving deep into the mess that is vampire politics, with you being a new agent of sorts for the local overseer, Lacroix.  Not that you really want to.  In the very first cutscene, you get Turned, are informed that serving Lacroix is in your best interests if you want to live, and get a VERY rude awakening to the draconian rules of vampire society.  The Masquerade.

Ah yes, the masquerade.  You see, if humans find out about the vampires walking in their midst, right down the streets of modern downtown LA…Well, they are going to go Simon Belmont on you all.  So, you have 5 strikes.  If you Feed on people in public, use obviously supernatural powers in plain sight or get spotted by a civilian when playing the above mentioned Nosferatu, you will get a Masquerade violation.  With each violation, you run greater risk of running into vampire hunters out in the open.  5 violations and, as Smiling Jack (One of the most awesome characters in the game) puts it:  “You wind up staked and baked”, Game over.

So not only do you need to accomplish your missions for your new overseer, but you need to be careful when and where you Feed and use your powers.

Each vampire clan (ie:  Character class) is fairly unique, each with a specific focus, and a clear weakness.  For example, Nosferatu are so ugly that being seen in a civilian area will likely lead to a masquerade violation (throwing social interaction mostly out the window for them), but they make up for it with excellent stealth skills and melee mastery.  Then there are the Tremere, who can never fully level up their physical attributes, but can bend blood and break into the minds of most enemies.

And then there are these guys who seduce the hell out of everything and shoot the survivors

But most of your powers come at a price.  Blood.  To fuel your various powers, you’ll need to feed on mortals, blood packs, or rats if you can stomach that.  If you run low on blood, you can’t use your various abilities, and worse, you run the risk of frezying and losing control, which could easily lead to a Masquerade violation, or running right into an ambush.

Gameplay has a lot of diversity.  You can focus on stealth, wasting armies of mooks without taking a hit.  You can charm your way through a lot of encounters.  You can pick locks, hack computers, mind control or seduce or bribe people to get what you want…You can go close combat or guns or focus more on your higher end abilities like making glowing wolves appear out of nowhere to chow down on your enemies.  The variety is excellent.

Decisions, decisions…What do I want to be awesome at next?

That said, it suffers a bit of Deus Ex Human Revolutions problem of boss fights.  While most of them aren’t anywhere NEAR as frustrating as HR’s bosses since you likely have a skill or two you can use to gain an advantage (and the bosses only really start getting hard around the second half, when you should be more than prepared), it can be frustrating to have a melee character facing off against someone who can teleport out of range after a few whacks, and then starts pestering you with his gun.

The real star of the game is how engaging the world is.  The characters are well written (Smiling Jack, Nines, and the Voerman Sisters really stand out) and the game makes a concerted effort to make you wonder which side in this conflict you’ll ultimately side with, and one in particular is a refreshing choice to be able to make.  Favors will be curried, backs will be stabbed, and your status as a newly Embraced Vampire will be exploited by every corpse with a week of seniority and some dirty work that needs doing.  And you will love it.

So if you’re a fan of action RPGs or stealth games, or really loved the Deus Ex games, you owe it to yourself to sink your fangs into this game.  It really is that good.

Just make sure you grab the latest fan patch HERE.  And it’s still being updated and improved to this day.

Happy hunting everyone.