Dust: An Elysian Tail and the Problem of Expectation

Apparently, I accidentally deleted my Bayonetta save of forty-eight hours. All that work down the drain, and yet I’m not actually disappointed at all! Rather, I relish the opportunity to revisit one of my favorite (if not MY MOST favorite) games. There’s nothing quite like throwing Jubileus the Creator into the sun, now is there? Well, maybe except conquering Ninja Gaiden‘s Xbox incarnation, or some other tough challenge in said style of interactive experiences.

Unfortunately, at the same time, Bayonetta puts every other game in the same “character action combat” vein into question. Their mechanics deserve additional scrutiny just by virtue of relation to Bayonetta. And, as you’d suspect, they look anemic and/or terrible by comparison. Dust: An Elysian Tale falls into this trap. In a way, this game reflects the influence of “Metroidvania” mechanics – mostly exploration for its own sake, and combat along the way. If I had to guess, the developers played a whole lot of Muramasa: The Demon Blade, because Dust sometimes steals wholesale from it.

Dust-an-elysian-tail-thundershock

But said combat looks REALLY FLASHY!

Unlike its forebeares, however, Dust tries to make the combat more interesting, and by interesting I mean more like Devil May Cry in two dimensions. Your main character retains the usual dial-a-combo flair, with launchers and air dashes galore for the purpose of comboing enemies into oblivion. However, I found that pumping up your combo meter provides little incentive than a small experience boost. More often than not, you want fights to end quickly, not drag along forever. While the various moves look fascinating and interesting, due to the fabulous hand drawn art, you’ll find optimal combos and combinations rather quickly. Really, you most want to stay in the air as long as possible, as the ground never remains safe for too long. You don’t want to get surrounded, after all, so launcher and Helm Splitters (down and Y for this game) work well in this respect.

Most normal combat provides little challenge, except for in the strange defensive options on display. You can dodge in either direction and immediately counter-attack, though I found little use for it. As well, you can parry an attack and get a damage bonus (much like DmC: Devil May Cry) if you hold the attack buttons down as you attack enemies. This works well on some enemies and not others; most of them simply attack too fast and too randomly to make it worth your while. Having played for three hours or so, foes give little telegraphing or warning when they’re about to attack, making most attempts to use said defensive mechanics a crapshoot at best.

Furthermore, why bother when the “RPG elements” make these two options moot for the most part? Like most RPGs, Dust requires item management, equipment, stat upgrades, and crafting into the mix. In that sense, your incentive for combat comes from gathering crafting materials and gold, which you’ll use to further your abilities. I found upgrading and item purchase often make some fights trivial; bosses, for example, don’t require much more than potion spamming in most cases. I’m playing the game on Tough, and I literally found no need to use potions on most bosses. Just use your air dash ability to stunlock them, and you’ll do fine! I wish that exploiting the mechanics weren’t so easy, but what can you do? Upgrade your attack power to full, and you’ll see most enemies die at the drop of a hat, and bosses just as fast.

In other words, why bother with defense at all? You could just grind out an extra level or two in this game, and while that’s not an optimal solution it will work. This subtext of “RPG over action game” appears everywhere in Dust, from the reams of spoken, voice-acted dialogue (quite good, I might add!) to the appearance of merchants and the search for quest items. Frankly, it’s a strange mix, but a more relaxing one than a pure action game. If anything, I’d call Dust a therapeutic grind guided by a standard amnesiac plot-line (also a JRPG trope). The combat, if not Bayonetta levels of difficult, remains satisfying from a purely visual and aesthetic-minded viewpoint. From a mechanical standpoint, it’s a boring ride from point A to point B in most cases. Thanks to the Tough and above difficulties, at least making mistakes lets the game mete out a suitable punishment.

So why talk about Dust? Well, I initially felt a huge wave of disappointment. It wasn’t Bayonetta, let’s be frank. Most combat games never will reach that level of finesse and holistic mechanical design on that level, especially not one going for a role-playing game feel. But you shouldn’t expect a game with combat as a secondary element to work the same as a game designed with combat as its focus. I made that mistake right off the bat. However, once I started playing Dust on its own terms – an RPG that looks a lot like a Metroid game – then I started enjoying it. If it’s a bit too easy, then I shouldn’t like every JRPG in the world, either. Just because it doesn’t meet my expectation, falsely presumed, does not mean the author did not fulfill their goals in the process of game design.

It’s all too easy to treat games and God alike as pleasure-dealing devices; give me what I want, when I want. This may explain the current crop of games that exist as little more than experiential devices for pleasure – they barely require your input! Just because the game is too easy, or too hard, or some other complaint doesn’t mean it isn’t competently designed. Just because God does not answer prayer instantaneously, or quite in the way we would like (give me stuff, magic God-in-a-box!) doesn’t mean He does not hear. On the contrary:

17 He has regarded the prayer of the destitute
And has not despised their prayer.

18 This will be written for the generation to come,
That a people yet to be created may praise the Lord.

How I wish that I could always be so patient as Psalm 102 would like! I often find myself wondering when and where a prayer will eventually pop up. Something to which I completely forgot suddenly reappears in a way I don’t expect, nor understand, yet I know it less as coincidence and more as a work of God. The world is a strange place, far stranger than a mechanistic viewpoint and far more bizarre than we could comprehend. Strange forces seemingly work at all time, and I imagine everyone experiences those moments of synchronicity. It’s partly because we are part of the world, yet not really part of it. We do not belong, and that’s what makes strange things strange – they’re unnatural, at least for the materialist.

Let things come as they may, and the world will surprise you at times. I guess that makes me an eternal optimist of a sort, like Chesterton:

The Christian optimism is based on the fact that we do not fit in to the world. I had tried to be happy by telling myself that man is an animal, like any other which sought its meat from God. But now I really was happy, for I had learnt that man is a monstrosity. I had been right in feeling all things as odd, for I myself was at once worse and better than all things. The optimist’s pleasure was prosaic, for it dwelt on the naturalness of everything; the Christian pleasure was poetic, for it dwelt on the unnaturalness of everything in the light of the supernatural. The modern philosopher had told me again and again that I was in the right place, and I had still felt depressed even in acquiescence. But I had heard that I was in the wrong place, and my soul sang for joy, like a bird in spring. The knowledge found out and illuminated forgotten chambers in the dark house of infancy. I knew now why grass had always seemed to me as queer as the green beard of a giant, and why I could feel homesick at home.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.
  • Interesting concept: “It’s all too easy to treat games and God alike as pleasure-dealing devices” It’s good to call this out and offer the alternative. But I wonder if games get better at core mechanical enjoyment that it’s any easier to see them as something other than pleasure-dealing devices.

    It has a lot to do with the inherent structure of what games are intended to be. Would you suggest it’s just a matter of our own discipline to overcome this pleasure-seeking?

    Also, did you see this PBS GameShow episode about the addictive pleasure-dealing nature of games? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SEYECQO8TUk&feature=c4-overview-vl&list=PLRfJP25LI5vTT6qHBm9hmYrT4WMXDROc0

    • Zachery Oliver

      For me, it’s more “what do you want to learn here?” And that might sound strange, but the knowledge building process is always the interesting part of playing the game. I tend to approach it from that angle rather than “time to escape from reality to enjoy the vidya games”.

      Intention, as usually, always comes into the picture.