Release Date: March 17, 2020
Platform: PC Via Steam
A code for this game was provided by Something Classic Games
What’s It About?
Developed by Retreaux Games, Pillars of Dust is a retro-style RPG with a charming 8-bit aesthetic and catchy chiptune music. You alternate between two characters – a prince named Carlton and a pauper named Gregg, as they embark on an occasionally-intersecting journey to discover their heritage and the truth behind the fall of the kingdom of Alluriga. Each chapter contains hidden orbs, secret chambers, and thousands upon thousands of nuggets (yes, that kind of nugget), which serve as currency. You can hire an additional companion character to tag along, but are unable to customize their skills or equipment. Battles are turn-based and shown from the characters’ perspective, much like in the NES Dragon Quest games, and you can see enemies on the map before combat is initiated.
Pillars of Dust may have retro aesthetics, but the gameplay is decidedly more modern. Your character moves at a speedy clip, and controls are extremely crisp and responsive. Everything feels effectively streamlined to make the game as accessible as possible for both nostalgic RPG fans and modern gamers. Thorough exploration is frequently rewarded, and it never feels like the game is wasting your time. This streamlined design philosophy is especially evident in the game’s battles, which are refreshingly fast-paced. Whether you approach combat with versatility or decide to focus on one or two key statistics, you should be able to get through any encounter without any grinding, as long as you don’t simply run away from every enemy encounter. You even fully recover your health and ability points after every single battle, and have a chance of increasing one of four stats (attack, defense, agility, and “special” abilities) after winning.
Just because the game is streamlined and accessible doesn’t mean it’s a pushover in terms of difficulty. I suffered defeat at the hands of regular enemies on more than one occasion, but you are graciously allowed to restart a battle after losing. It’s not unusual to step into a dungeon, get humiliated by a new type of enemy, and run back to town with your tail between your legs to recruit a different companion character who is better suited against that enemy type.
Battles also have a very interesting “phase increase” mechanic, where enemies become stronger every few turns. This encourages you to take a more offensive-minded approach and forces you to strongly consider your actions each turn. You can buff/debuff characters or enemies up to three times, but it might not be worth the set-up when you have a considerably stronger enemy bearing down on you.
Pillars of Dust looks and sounds like an authentic late-’80s console RPG. Squat character sprites march about a vibrant world, and the simplistic pixel art fits quite nicely. The art for enemies and character portraits has a crude Microsoft Paint-influenced charm that complements the game’s general quirkiness perfectly. There is very little animation to speak of, but I was always looking forward to seeing new enemy types, which range from goblins to hockey mask-wearing maniacs, and all with plenty of visual personality. Large boss enemies, like the sewer-dwelling “Stank Beast,” are particularly memorable.
The music is, in a word, phenomenal, and some of the best chiptune-style music I have heard in years. The title theme that plays as the fall of Alluriga is described is fittingly tinged with melancholy. The battle themes, with their driving beats and syncopated rhythms, perfectly provide a boost of adrenaline without ever becoming too repetitive. My favorite track is probably the jaunty overworld theme, but honestly, every single track is impressively-composed. Sound effects get the job done well and sound appropriately 8-bit. Slightly less 8-bit are the hilariously random voice samples that occur when you get a critical hit or discover a “craaaazy” secret room.
The game’s story is somewhat unremarkable, but is elevated by a highly irreverent sense of humor. The quirkiness doesn’t quite reach the post-modern high point set by Earthbound or Undertale, but there are plenty of anachronistic references and zany running gags to enjoy. I particularly got a kick out of the rock golem boss who becomes increasingly agitated at being confused for Gollum from Lord of the Rings. Even the numerous town wells – a staple of the genre – have their own personality, with several attempting to lure you to your demise with the promise of hidden wealth. I probably saw more Game Over screens from falling down wells than from dying in battle!
There are a lot of collectibles scattered throughout Alluriga, and they are often hidden in pots, barrels, and bookshelves. You eventually catch on to some subtle differences in the objects that contain hidden items, but whether you stop to scan the screen or compulsively check each and every object, it can become exhausting. Some rooms have literally dozens of searchable containers, and you can get some extremely useful items from them. I do not doubt that some gamers will love hunting for collectibles, and while I didn’t hate doing so, it occasionally bogged down the experience.
If you’re the patient, strategically-minded type, there’s a chance that the offense-oriented combat will not appeal to you. Those who like to take their time to apply buffs and debuffs and get a feel for the enemy’s attack patterns and weaknesses might crumble under the mounting pressure of the phase increases. On the subject of buffs/debuffs, I was disappointed that there was no visual indication of stat changes, so I was often confused about whether an effect had worn off and needed to be reapplied. Status effects such as poison and silence have their own icon, so I’m not sure why buffs like Attack Up do not.
Pillars of Dust is a near-perfect homage to the RPGs that I idolized growing up. It perfectly nails the look and feel of classic games while infusing itself with modern humor and accessible mechanics. At 8-10 hours in length, it’s a well-paced adventure that does not overstay its welcome, and I’ll likely replay it to experience the chapters in a different order. The graphics are charming and the music is utterly sublime. Retreaux Games’ first offering is a truly impressive achievement, and I can’t wait to see what they do next.