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TOO GOOD!! Dust: An Elysian Tail OST (Review)

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There’s a part of me that’s angry about HyperDuck SoundWorks’ newest release. It has to do with timing.

You see, there have been boatloads of wonderful indie game soundtracks released in 2012. It has been truly overwhelming. But, at the end of the year, I thought I had my winner for the indie game OST category picked out already. And how would anything sneak up and knock my new favorite off its pedestal within the last few months of the year?

Well, they did it. Chris and the rest of the HyperDuck team, alongside some special assistance from VGM veteran Alexander Brandon (Deus Ex, Bejeweled 3), have thrown in a surprise contender in the form of the soundtrack for Dust: An Elysian Tail (an Action RPG for XBLA). This thing is amazing and surprising and well outside the style(s) I expected to find on the soundtrack.

After the jump, our detailed review and (of course) the bandcamp embed!

Let’s start by talking about Mr. Brandon’s contributions. He wrote four songs for Dust: An Elysian Tail. They are: Falana (01), Aurora (03), Beneath Hollow Grounds (12), and Last Sanctum (16). The two opening tracks set two very specific settings and moods: “Falana” is a piano-centric work, though the piano melody could just have easily been played by a music box. It sets up the game’s emotionally powerful and fantasy-laden atmosphere, much like games like Secret of Mana and Kingdom Hearts have done with their prologues and title screens. “Aurora,” on the other hand, brings in the sounds of ethnically rich instrumentation (unique strings and winds, huzzah!). Though there is something painfully familiar about the struggles ahead in this epic adventure, there is also an element of the foreign, the exotic.

In “Beneath Hollow Grounds,” piano takes center stage again, but this time it is accompanied by big tribal drums and some great, reverb-heavy synths (including synthesized choral/vocal sounds). Then in “Last Sanctum,” Alex pulls out all the stops. The rhythm bespeaks a march, or an anthem, but not one that is dry or lacking in purpose. Here we find just the right amount of layered background instruments to accompany the driving forces: at first, the drums, and then the string ensemble and the plucked strings.

But here’s the crazy part: as enjoyable as Alexander Brandon’s tracks are, they are not the best songs on the album. This 37-track, 107-minute OST deserves praise not just because it has a big name attached to it. HyperDuck, a young studio from the UK (specifically Belfast, Northern Ireland) formed by Chris Geehan and Dan Byrne-McCullough, have outdone themselves in a major way here. I enjoyed their work on A.R.E.S Extinction Agenda, but this just takes what they did there, throws aside all sense of the familiar — gone is the electro-synth-rock of that OST — but keeps the high quality compositions and pulse-pounding rhythms.

Let me guide you to some of my favorite tracks. First of all, there’s track 11: “Deities.” What I assume is a boss battle theme comes across as something akin to, and on par with, some of the best CAVE soundtracks to date (in particular, I am reminded of Mushihimesama in its arranged form and some tracks from Deathsmiles). It’s a synth orchestra track, sure, but with enough crazy looped background decorations (especially with piano!!) to force it outside the realm of convention.

You want an even harder boss theme? The closest thing to a track from A.R.E.S to sneak into Dust is track 17, “Heavy Bones.” This is a serious, balls-to-the-walls piece of music. Can we drop all other descriptors and just call this genre of music “power?” Because that’s what I’m feeling. It just oozes raw strength.

There are some fantastic stage/environment themes to explore as well: tracks like “The Glade,” “Abadis Forest,” and “Cirromon Caverns” sound like the best looped, synthesized soundtracks from the land of the rising sun. I am thinking of Falcom, Gust, and (again) CAVE when I hear these tunes. And don’t even get me started on the goodness that is “The Blackmoor Mountains.” And the “Vintage” versions (the bonus tracks after the ending) help drive those sentiments home, for me.

Speaking of sentiment, there was one tune so totally evocative that it made me cry. Now, I cry because I forced it into a new context. The track is the end credits music: “Gone Home (Journey’s End).” It’s a piano/strings ballad, and it is simply beautiful. It’s also simple. It really is a simple melodic tune, but not without elegance. I was shocked that these guys had it in them.

(The context I’m speaking of, for the record: my beautiful orange tabby Clive passed away recently, and in a tribute video I made for Clive, I used this song. Fitting, considering Dust is a game about anthropomorphized animals.)

And in this descriptive analysis, I’ve barely broken the surface. There is so much diversity here, and it’s all so interesting and wonderful … I’ve had this soundtrack playing in the background of my daily life for a week now and I’m not even beginning to tire of it. There is so much to discover, appreciate, and love. So get diggin’!

You can buy it here (5 GBP, currently about $8 USD). It’s a soundtrack-of-the-year contender, and I will personally have a very hard time when it comes to votes with the rest of the OSV staff between this one and Squids Wild West. Between that and my earlier statement about this soundtrack channeling the power of CAVE, you’d best believe I’m giving this one my most sincere and heartfelt endorsement.

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