DUST: AN ELYSIAN TAIL / Humble Hearts / PC
I'm guessing Dust was born when someone at this indie outfit Humble Hearts looked at Odin Sphere and said "Ooh! Pretty! I want one of THOSE!" It's very reminiscent in terms of gameplay, lavish art, world structure, there's even a pan-through of new areas the first time you visit them that's exactly the same.
Dust one-ups Vanillaware in several ways, though. One is in the game being almost entirely linear, so you're not constantly replaying the same areas and facing the same bosses. The other is in there being no slowdown ... provided you have a pretty good computer, that is, as even though the game is 2D it's not very well optimized and still takes some horsepower to run well.
There's one bit of unpleasantness to get out of the way before we go any further, though, and that's the art. Now, the gameplay art is one of the game's greatest selling points. It's incredibly detailed at times and pretty amazing for a one-man indie-funded effort. Cut-scenes and dialogue sequences are definitely of the Deviantart Furry school, however. The game doesn't really have furry themes and is not at all sexualized, but between the art style and the Saturday morning cartoon level of plot and dialogue, you may be tempted to turn the monitor off at times if you're playing this one around other adults. Personally, though I'm not the world's most tolerant of Furry Fandom, I thought the game was so well-made it was worth overlooking the sometimes unpalatable character design and cheesy dialogue. And the game never "advocates for the lifestyle" in any way, so if you just imagine you're playing the forgotten great Usagi Yojimbo game or something you'll be OK. I promise. Honestly it's never as embarassing as Vanillaware can be at their worst moments.
So Dust is this rabbity ghostly samurai sort of thing with preternatural combat abilities. He wakes up in a grotto with no memory, a talking magic sword and a wisecracking furry flying companion a la Lunar and a hundred other animu games since then. We'll go on a journey of self discovery as Dust slowly remembers his past, finds out about his Mystelious Powars and of course eventually saves the world from some genocidal asshole. The story and dialogue are at their absolute cheesiest and most predictably tropey right at the very beginning, so if you can survive the initial assault it's actually a little bit upward from there on.
Like many indie games as of late, Dust goes for a Metroidvania sort of thing, but unlike many of said indie games, it actually manages to scratch an Igavania sort of itch pretty well. There's a definite sort of Castlevania feel to it, though the structure is more like Order of Ecclesia than Symphony of the Night, with a series of discrete locations you travel between via world map rather than constantly being in one huge contiguous location. Getting the total 117% map completion does require actual exploration and some thought here and there, not reaching the sublime levels of early Metroid, but still far better than Guacamelee and its giant colored blocks. You gain EXP from slain enemies, you choose to allocate points to your stats at level-ups, you equip weapons and armor and etc., there's even an extremely basic crafting system based on blueprints and materials that enemies sometimes randomly choke up. Dust does employ a combo counter, but for the most part it's entirely optional. There is some emphasis on air-juggling enemies, but it doesn't get anywhere near the obnoxious levels of a Shank or Devil May Cry where you have to do 200 flippy hits in a row on every single stupid enemy mook just to scratch them. I think combos also increase earned EXP. If you absolutely must have combo whoresmanship in your games, at least make it optional like this. Good job there Humble Hearts.
One further caveat about playing this game, though -- there's four selectable difficulty levels, and you'll really want to put it at least on the second-highest, which is "Tough" mode. Normal is just far, far too easy. Enemies just sort of line up to be slaughtered, and you'll find yourself massively overleveling because of it. Then you get to the bosses, of which there are very few, and cut through them in seconds because you're just too powerful. The only time there's any real challenge is when you're jumped by a mob and their attack animations get lost in the crowd and in all the sparkly magical shit coming out of your flying companion.
Dust is far from perfect, and requires you to overlook a few things. The level of polish in the art, menus and core gameplay is exceptional considering the game's small-budget design, but that polish doesn't extend all the way through every aspect. Reportedly working with only $40,000 over a period of three years, the developers had to pick their spots, and those were the areas they focused on. You have to make some allowances for the gameplay, which can get rather repetitive over the game's entire length, and for the very cartoony story and setting, which were clearly pitched to more of a K-12 audience than the adults that indie titles are usually aimed at. Those allowances are worth making, however, because it's still a very enjoyable experience on the whole, especially for those afflicted with the chronic itch for Castleroids.
* Gameplay Video