The fact that games like Dustforce exist reaffirms what I love about this industry. For every multi-billion dollar action game that holds your hand and goes out of its way to make you feel like a gaming badass, there is a 2D platformer made by four people that will come along and put you firmly back in your place.
Dustforce was originally released on Steam in 2012 to great critical reception, and has since gained a respectable enough following for Capcom (of all people) to decide to publish it on PS3, 360 and Vita – which is nothing short of a fairy tale-esque triumph for developers Hitbox, especially when you consider what type of game this is.
Taking its cues from sadomasochistic platformers like Super Meat Boy, Dustforce demands nothing less than pinpoint precision and perfect timing from the player at all times. Initially the game is quite gentle with you, easing you in with a nice tutorial and some relatively simple opening levels – until it lulls you into thinking you’ve mastered the basic mechanics. Then, half an hour later, it bludgeons you with its difficulty curve and you realize how inferior your skills really are.
The game revolves around a team of four cleaners called – you guessed it – the Dustforce. The game sees them hopping from locale to locale, cleaning everything from dust, to fog to slime and taking on whatever (presumably) dirty enemies they face.
Like most good platformers, the story here is minimal and essentially just serves as a background to set up the game’s core mechanics. Each level sees you following a trail of dirt as you run, jump and slide your way across them cleaning everything in your path. Yes: slide.
Where Dustforce differentiates itself from other games in the genre, is in the characters’ ninja-like ability to briefly slide down and across walls. The game utilizes this mechanic brilliantly, often placing dirt on the side of a death-defying drop and daring you to try and slide down toward it – all in the hope that you’ll clean enough of the level to achieve that life-affirming S rating.
This is also one of the rare platformers to put a heavy emphasis on momentum and combat rather than just quick reactions. Instead of the gameplay focusing on speed and reaction time, Dustforce revels in making platforming a slow and deliberate fare. Armed with two types of attack, cleaning up dirt and combining attacks fills up your combo meter which results in you releasing an incredibly powerful super attack.
While combat in platformers isn’t new, Dustforce only lets you jump a third time after defeating an enemy. This leads to whole sections of impossible looking jumps where you’ll have to figure out the exact combination of dash, jump, double jump and attacks that will give you just enough momentum to make it across unscathed.
As every new level gets unlocked it gets increasingly harder to progress through to the end of each infuriatingly difficult stage. This game is not for the fate hearted; in fact, Dustforce is by far the hardest game I’ve ever played – sorry Dark Souls. In case you think I’m over exaggerating, on one particular level it took me almost twenty minutes to figure out how to get past a single progression of jumps. Mario this is not.
After eventually managing to figure out the exact combination required to reach that lofty ledge, you then have to pull off each action flawlessly or else be doomed to repeat it over and over again.
When playing Dustforce you will die, and you will utter every obscenity under the sun – repeatedly. But the satisfaction of that Eureka moment when you figure out how to reach that absurdly high platform makes all the frustration and repetition worth it.
And that’s the genius behind Dustforce’s design – it really does feel worth enduring all the pain and frustration for. When you eventually figure out what to do and manage to execute each jump and dash meticulously, the game has such a great sense of flow that it feels exhilarating. The contrast between this and failing miserably means you’re always chasing that high of wanting to feel like you’ve mastered the level, and because of this perfect balance, Hitbox have managed to nail that “just one more go” compulsion admirably.
It’s not just the game’s great controls and mechanics that keep you playing – Dustforce has one of the catchiest and most infectious soundtracks I’ve heard in a long time. When you find yourself stifling your screams and tearing your hair out, your foot will still be tapping along to the dancey 8bit tunes pumping out of your TV.
The beautifully hand drawn art style also does it’s part to help stop you descending into a Hulk-like rage. While in screenshots Dustforce doesn’t look particularly stunning, in motion it’s a completely different story.
Surprisingly for a 2D indie platformer, Dustforce also has a multiplayer component. While the combat-focused offline and online multiplayer modes are a bit of a misfire, the online leaderboards’ use of video replays adds a great sense of competition to the experience, and is sure to keep you returning to these levels time and time again.
VERDICT: While definitely not for everyone, Dustforce is an ambitious and charming game that shows touches of brillance as frequently as it punishes and annoys. The beauty of repeated frustration followed by those cries of Eurekas is something that this game manages to hone down to a fine art form – and what makes it a must for fans of the genre. Dustforce may raise your blood pressure considerably, but this is certainly going to be the most fun you’ll ever have cleaning.
VERY GOOD. An 8/10 is only awarded to a game we consider truly worthy of your hard-earned cash. This game is only held back by a smattering of minor or middling issues and comes highly recommended.
Review code provided by publisher.