Dustforce is a 2D platforming game made for a specific group of people, a slice of the market that revels in how esoteric, unique, and challenging its old-school sensibilities are. It’s a game for the Super Meat Boy crowd of enthusiasts who like their difficulty punishing and their controls flawless, and although Dustforce is hardly accessible, its unique brand of platforming is some of the most satisfying since Team Meat’s 2010 indie darling.
One world to describe the indie aesthetic: gorgeous.
Calling Dustforce a janitor power-fantasy would do it a disservice, but it would also be pretty accurate. As one of four playable and nimble janitors, you must cleanse the world of evil dust, leaves, garbage and greenish goo laid by an opposing team of anti-janitors. That doesn’t exactly sound like a premise forged in the fires of raw excitement, but the Hitbox Team takes the idea and runs with it.
As you progress through a level, you sweep up the filth and clutter of the world that’s spread across most surfaces automatically. This detritus is directly linked to you completion rank at the end of a level and fuels a combo bar that when filled allows you to unleash a stylish whirlwind of cleansing upon your tainted enemies. The smoother and faster your run through the level, the higher your “finesse” rank is.
The rub is that progression is almost completely gated behind getting an S-rank in both categories, and getting through the level without falling to your death is no small feat in itself. Dustforce demands nothing but perfection if you want to see any of its content. Fall short of its exacting requirements and you get to bum around the same five or six starting levels until you S-rank yourself a key to open up a new stage. You can watch replays of other, more successful player’s runs directly from the leaderboard, but it’s on you to emulate those moves. It’s off-putting from the start, and even a downgrade to an A rank standard would have provided a serious challenge without feeling so constrained.
Hitbox Team does, however, give you the tools to deal with their lofty standards. Dustforce's platforming excels in its fine balance between looseness and accuracy, keeping you in control of your character at all times, thus making your failure to nail a section no one’s fault but your own. Is it infuriating? Absolutely, but it’s perfectly within your ability to nab those double-S ranks as the control is so damn good, especially if you’re using a gamepad and have to remap the controls yourself.
It’s hard to define what makes Dustforce so much fun other than the fact that the animation system allows you to do almost anything. Hitting an enemy after a double jump entitles you to another jump, dashing as you land on an incline that sends you rocketing forward; there’s a host of little details that can transform an ordinary player into a platforming demon given enough practice.
You won't find these janitors touring your ordinary high school.
Stringing together a set of moves to maintain your precious momentum requires skill beyond what we’ve come to expect from today’s platformers, and when you do nail the rhythm of a level, the feeling of satisfaction is almost as intense as the joy of overcoming the level’s geometry with your built-up speed intact. Dustforce rewards aptitude with a great sense of accomplishment, and there’s nothing quite like mastering the intricacies of a stage after watching other people simply destroy it. If you come from a school of gaming thought that encouraged playing games just to get better at that game and look awesome doing it then Dustforce will deliver.
The high barrier to entry is negated somewhat by Dustforce’s aesthetics, which combine nicely layered backgrounds with a pleasing organic look that gradually changes in theme as you progress from eradicating one type of offending filth to the next. But it's the animation that truly impresses as each playable sprite has their own set of bespoke set of crisp, fluid frames. The visuals and animations all work toward a serene, pleasant atmosphere that fits Dustforce’s endearingly odd concept perfectly.
The soundtrack goes a long way to presenting a calm and relaxed contrast with your inevitable fury and stiff thumbs. It’s an arresting, ambient score that after playing an hour of sweeping leaves and sliding on ceilings, you’ll realize how superb the audio sets the tone.
Who knew leaves could anger such docile bears?
Outside of the core platforming, Dustforce offers a co-op/multiplayer that would’ve been fantastic had it been functional online, but being local only, it’s an interesting diversion if you have extra controllers and friends on hand. There are a variety of modes for you and friends to play competitively; some center around the game’s cleaning concept; others showcase fighting modes where up to four of you can brandish your brooms using the light/heavy swipe and combo mechanics that work surprisingly well in a Deathmatch-style contest. Hitbox also promises an upcoming level designer, which suggests they may build on the game’s sound foundation for some time to come.
All this makes Dustforce incredibly easy to recommend to a very small number of gamers. If Super Meat Boy whetted your appetite for platforming of the unforgiving kind, then Dustforce is without a doubt a worthy addition to the 2D platforming revival. There’s a depth of content and gameplay here that ensures everyone else will find plenty to like, but if you don’t have a perfectionist in you, then approach with considerable caution.
Developer: Hitbox Team
Release Date: January 17, 2012
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign), 2-4 (Local Multiplayer)
Platforms: PC (Reviewed), Mac