Sometimes it’s not a matter of how long a game’s been in development, but the road that it’s taken as it goes through it.  We could sit here and bring up stories about games that should’ve come out years ago – Duke Nukem Forever immediately comes to mind, as it lingered in developmental hell for 14 years – but for this particular preview, we find ourselves discussing Dust: An Elysian Tail.  

The game was first announced way back in 2009 as a winner of Microsoft’s Dream.Build.Play Challenge, a competition that brought out the best in independent game development.  Dust: An Elysian Tail was the work of one man – game designer Dean Dodrill, who had put in the kind of effort to the 2-D Metroidvania-style adventure game that you’d normally see from 12 other given developers on a devoted team.  

That kind of effort easily netted him the award, and Microsoft, perhaps seeing the true potential that the game carries, opted to leave it off of the Xbox 360 Indie Games Channel, instead granting it a full Xbox Live Arcade release.  And now, three years after winning the initial Challenge, the final game is just about upon us, as the final release in the company’s Summer of Arcade promotion.  (It’s due out August 15th.)

Dodrill, working under the company name Humble Hearts, has taken this time to polish the game even further, assuring that it’s every bit worth its bumped-up 1200 Microsoft point ($15) price.  And judging by what we’ve played at PAX East and E3 these past few months, we can certainly say it’s right up there with some of the best 2D artistic efforts.  It almost reminded us of the classic Saturn game Astal – anyone remember that one?

In Dust, you play a magical creature with the gift of voice and movement, also named Dust.  It’s your job to save a village from invading enemies that dabble in natural design, including rock creatures that try to crush you flat and grunts that leave a lot to be desired.

Now, Dust isn’t one of these peaceful Earth types.  He carries with him a sword.  Like Dante in Devil May Cry, he’s able to manipulate this sword into a number of combination attacks, even going as far as to swat enemies in the air and hit them with multiple strikes before they land back on the ground.  We’ve chained together some of these techniques and it’s pretty suave how they come together, and keep you intrigued to try and build better combos.

Along for the ride on your journey is a small sidekick named Fidget, who guides you on your way through a huge, explorable 2D world, where you can find additional non-playable characters that give you advice and items, including health kits that will keep you from collapsing.  (Some of the tougher enemies in the game require you to pop one into effect, so keep ‘em handy.)

It’s not often we see a game incorporate role-playing style elements into an enriched action experience, but it’s even less often that we see it come from one man.  Yet Dodrill, still reeling from the attention that Dust has gotten, we’re sure, has really gone all out to make the game feel like a tribute to classics of old.  We wouldn’t be surprised if, years from now, this is mentioned in the same breath alongside other classics.

But the gameplay is only part of the picture.  We mentioned before how the visuals in Dust: An Elysian Tale really make the game come together, and good God, do they.  Seeing this game in action is almost like watching an interactive cartoon.  Dust and his fellow characters move with a stunning amount of fluidity (a wild achievement considering Dodrill handled each frame himself), and the world that your hero explores is vast, with plenty of items to collect and smaller areas to discover.  

The lighting effects are also quite stunning, especially as you swing your sword around.  It glimmers in a shimmering light as you swipe away at enemies, but never to the point of becoming distracting.  This is a sight to see, especially if you’ve got a nice HDTV set-up that truly takes advantage of it.

The only downside to Dust: An Elysian Tale’s release is that it comes at the conclusion of the Summer of Arcade program, following such other noteworthy games as Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD and Deadlight, among others.  As a result, some people might miss out on it in the shuffle, too busy with other games.  

Really, if you appreciate fine independent game development, or just need a 2D-style adventure game that knocks your socks off in the same way that Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night did, Dust: An Elysian Tale is something you shouldn’t pass over.  Be sure to check it out when it arrives this August.