A few of years ago, I was convinced that side-scrolling beat ’em ups were over. I hadn’t seen a new release in the genre for a really, really long time. I was sad, too, because my childhood held countless evenings of hacking and slashing, punching and kicking my way through lush pixelated forests and bustling back alleys packed with enemies. Titles like Final Fight, Golden Axe, Streets of Rage, Double Dragon, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time, and I’m dating myself here, River City Ransom brought me hour upon glorious hour of button mashing, fist-punching fun.
In the early 2000s, beat ’em ups shifted over to 3d. It made sense, we had the technology. The game plan, while fundamentally the same–run into a room, kill all the things in said room, run into the next room, repeat until victory or death–still felt… off. Something about the free roaming enabled by 3D took away some of the visceral feel of the genre for me. Being trapped in a circular room with a swarm of enemies doesn’t feel nearly as intense as fighting with your back to the 2D stage wall against a similar swarm. The 3D titles were fun, though and some of the IPs that spawned from this revamping of the genre, like Devil May Cry and God of War proved so fun that their respective series are still going strong to this day.
This May, Dean Dodrill’s imaginative take on a classic beat ’em up combined with RPG elements released for Windows through Steam. The game, which had previously seen release through the Xbox Live Arcade, sends players on an adventure to Falana, a fantasy world inhabited by beautifully drawn and animated anthropomorphic animals who have recently come under attack by a mysterious figure who controls an army of less-than-cute anthropomorphic lizard men and other creatures.
Starting out, players take control of Dust, voiced by Lucien Dodge (Pokemon, Heroes of Newerth) who finds himself accompanied by a Nimbat, Fidget, voiced by Kimlinh Tran (Skullgirls, Heroes of Newerth) and the talking Blade of Ahrah, voiced by Edward Bosco (Dungeon Fighter Online, Heroes of Newerth). Without memory of his past, Dust takes up the blade and heads through the forest to the East, Fidget in tow. The three move through vividly-colored areas and interact with a host of NPCs, each fully animated and voiced. The inclusion of such a huge amount of voice acting makes the game world truly come alive. Every character encountered, no matter how insignificant they may seem, comes with a unique voice and a story to tell. This helps to motivate players to save Falana, if the game’s amazing combat wasn’t enough motivation to continue hacking apart lizard men.
The combat feels really good. It combines elements of classic 2D beat ’em ups with the combo systems of more modern titles like the DMC series. You still walk around the environment in a very 2D manner, hopping from platform to platform and swinging your sword. Different button combinations net different attack strings and certain strings allow for certain enemies to be dispatched with ease. When battling swarms of small enemies, for example, the attack string X X X performs a series of rapid, wide-arching swings that deal damage to everything around Dust. If a single, heavy hitting enemy approaches, though, consider the string X X Y; Dust follows two quick slashes by lodging his sword in the enemy’s chest, spins them around and slams them into the ground before ripping the blade back out, causing heavy damage.
The game also boasts a rewarding magic system. Spells are not cast directly by Dust. Instead, Fidget sends spells into the air. Untouched, the spells remain rather tame; Her energy blast launches two bolts of white light which lack any real momentum, but will eventually crash into a couple of nearby enemies and cause some minor damage. If Dust enhances the spells with his blade by using various Y-based attacks, this simple spell becomes positively devastating. When grounded and holding Y, Dust spins his sword in place and causes Fidget’s bolts to split into many, many smaller pieces that track and collide with nearby enemies. Dust can also activate this spell while holding Y in the air, which causes him to fly about like some sort of squirrel-copter with several full batteries of heat-seeking missiles firing in all directions. Pressing Down + Y while in the air will perform “The Fallen,” an obvious homage to Vergil’s helm breaker from the DMC series, which splits the bolts in a different manner still.
In a very beat ’em up fashion, Dust boasts bosses which are surprisingly difficult. They can flat out kill Dust from full health in just a few swings. Combine this with the fact that they are typically huge, can reach across most of the screen, come in pairs or all of the above and you’ve got yourself a fight that doesn’t lend itself to blindly mashing buttons in order to succeed. This is where the game’s parry mechanic comes in. As a boss raises a massive arm to slam his club-or-whatever into your poorly-armored head, ready your thumb! When the strike would make contact with Dust, press X to attack at the same time to parry the blow and stun the enemy. When stunned, enemies take massive damage and can be killed quite quickly with a few simple slashes. Not all bosses are the same, though, and learning the timing of each of their moves is crucial to defeating them through this method.
So all of this combat has to have a point, right? Aside from advancing the story through clearing areas, Dust gains experience and levels up like in a standard RPG. The experience that he gains per fight relies heavily on how many hits he landed without taking damage. The game’s HUD features a combo tracker that ticks up every time Dust’s sword or Fidget’s spells make contact with an enemy unit. The tracker, from what I’ve seen, doesn’t ever reach a maximum number and the more hits you land in a row, the more bonus experience you receive, so there is great benefit to trying to stay in combat for as long as possible without taking damage. This feature helps to move the game along and makes quickly clearing areas extremely fun; It also encourages strategically clearing enemies by carefully planning your attacks to keep a combo running through an entire map.
The leveling system, while pretty standard, has in place a mechanism to prevent players from over specializing in a certain area. Each level, players are awarded a stat point to allocate as they please into any of the four stats available; However, at no point can any single stat be more than four points higher than the lowest stat. This encourages players not to stray away from any elements of combat, as their magic will always be “good,” as will their melee attacks and their defenses. Combat also rewards players with cash and items, which can also be found in the various treasure chests strewn about the land. These items come in the form of armor, accessories, weapon augmentations, consumables like food that restores health or removes status effects and various resources which can be used to craft various other items. Combine all of this with puzzles of varying difficulty and the ability to revisit areas through a waypoint system and you’ve got hours of content to play and replay. I’m still trying to see how high I can get that combo counter!
If you’ve ever enjoyed a beat ’em up in the past, or if you’re looking to try a first foray into the genre, Dust: An Elysian Tail is not to be missed.