January 17th, 2012 | By Chris Priestman
Just when you thought it was finally safe to step back outside after being masochistically obsessed with Super Meat Boy, up pops Dustforce. No doubt your first impressions of Hitbox’s debut 2D platformer have you drifting along with its eloquent soundtrack and freeflowing gameplay. Well you’re about to learn that you have just been lured in, as if a ship by the sweet voice of a mermaid, to a hard-as-nails, “I am never going to put this game down”, kind of experience.
Oh sure, it looks all sweet and innocent at first. There’s no denying that Dustforce has a gorgeously relaxing soundtrack; one that will have you closing your eyes and swaying along until you remember you have a game to play. The animations will astound you with how smooth and crisp they are. Let’s not forget the hand-drawn artstyle; a vivid, color-filled treat for your eyes. To say that your senses will be overwhelmed is an understatement. Your fingers (or thumbs) guide the janitors across the screen, scrubbing top-to-bottom clear of dust and other litter on their way and there is no sense of disconnection between your reactions and their movements. You can even feel the weight of their cleaning instrument during their elegant kinesis.
This privileged position as a player is not easy to reach though, or to maintain. Behind every perfect run, every dreamy sequence of perplexing movements, is hours of hard work and determination. This is apparent from the very start in the game’s more-than-adequate tutorial, which introduces every move to the player but leaves the mastery of each to the greatest giver of all: time. In effect, sacrifices must be made to meet what is required to progress in Dustforce. The initial impressions may suggest otherwise, but Dustforce is a very demanding platformer and it’s not due to in-game flaws or an unfair challenge. Human error is what makes this game so damn difficult.
Even the overworld is laid out in a fashion that requires certain skills to reach the harder levels – these are not skills required in-game, but nuanced manipulations of the game’s tight controls. Every time that you believe to have become one with Dustforce, the challenge is stepped up, and then some. The game depicts three sets of difficulties that come color-coded: steel, gold and red. Unlocking each door requires a key, which can only be maintained by gaining a double S rank on a level. The two ratings adhere to whether all the dirt was swept up and how elegantly this was done. Getting both at the same time as expected is this platformer’s main pursuit. This remains the game’s only potential fault in an age when gamers demand an ease of play. Inevitably, if forceful perfection is something that does not appeal to you, Dustforce will soon outstay its welcome. Those with their brains plugged into a socket and thumbs heavily bandaged, welcome to your new obsession!
There’s no other way of putting it: Dustforce is a master’s sport, tapping into the very core of its genre and pushing its players to an almost unbearable limit. Technically, the game is a marvel; this encompasses sensory satisfaction, level design and such precise mechanics. The very nerve of the platformer is struck with a rare chord, one that renders a brilliance palpable only to those who have long feasted on its hidden pleasures. A test of will, Dustforce acts as a heavenly spite; delivering, like Super Meat Boy and N before it, a means to measure up against one’s fellows. Online leaderboards accompany each level, encouraging competition and providing educatory materials via instantly available replays of every player’s run. Ultimately, one’s pride breathes new life in levels once thought complete – potential fame lies in a record time. This indirect multiplayer passage is perhaps the game’s greatest asset; a gift of the modern era to accompany the years-old gaming tradition of speedruns.
Yet, Dustforce vies to provide more via local multiplayer, allowing up to two teams of two players to battle it out in a mixture of classic modes that have been adapted to the gameplay. One side dirties the environment while the other cleans and each are permitted to use force to come out on top. As if that were not already enough content, a level editor provides a means for a community to thrive and carve their own creations and challenges for themselves. A variety of locales, enemies and traversable platforms are the tools that will birth an infinite number of possible outcomes.
Some may find that the absence of story, unlockables and achievements may feel lacking, not quite tangible enough. It is this when combined with the high difficulty of Dustforce that will unfortunately turn some players away. Aside from that, there’s no doubt that Dustforce will be revered as another icon of the platformer as it attests to its very soul, etching its design on to the foreheads of those who will eventually complete it. While not everyone will find Dustforce an enjoyable experience once its true purpose is revealed, it still has an impact for its beauty, capturing the craft of those who make it look easy and translating it into a vivacious display which anyone can appreciate.