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Review: Dustforce

5:00 PM on 01.23.2012
Review: Dustforce photo

In recent years, the platform game has been coming back into style with releases such as Rayman Origins and Donkey Kong Country Returns catching the attention of gamers across the globe. But there have always been those certain platformers that test your reflexes and timing more than your standard Mario or Sonic fare. During the NES generation, titles like Ghosts’N Goblins or Castlevania demanded that you use all of your skills in order to succeed. Now it seems that the most challenging platformers have found a new home, on computers with games such as N and I Wanna Be the Guy.

Let me preface this: I have put countless hours into Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, Ikaruga, Super Meat Boy, and a few titles in the Contra series, so I have a fair bit of practice with challenging games in a variety of genres. Dustforce, however, has tested my patience like no other but it has kept me coming back for more.

Dustforce (PC)
Publisher: Hitbox Team
Developer: Hitbox Team
Released: January 17, 2012
MSRP: $9.99

This is the first game from Hitbox Team, and it has had quite an interesting genesis. The original concept behind Dustforce was to create a 2D platforming game that challenged the player to master their character and the game mechanics. With this idea in mind and a well-made prototype in hand, Hitbox Team entered indiePub’s third Annual Independent Game Developer Competition and went on to win the $100,000 that helped to make Dustforce a reality.

In Dustforce, you play as one of four janitorial warriors looking to rid this world of all of the filth that seems to be not only cluttering up the place, but also infecting the wildlife and humans. Your job is to sweep this world clean, and to do so as stylishly as possible. These aren’t you average work-a-day blue collars, though; their skills in wall running, long jumping, and back flipping would even make the most seasoned parkour expert green with envy.

One thing that really makes Dustforce stand out from the crowd is its unique 2D art style. The hard-edged shadows and expressive animations really help provide a sense of character and charm that can’t be found in some huge triple-A titles. The characters pop out with their vibrant color schemes, in contrast to the more muted and cooler environments or set pieces. Their fluid animations show off the agility and dexterity of these sultans of sweeping, along with their own personality. The Blue and Red Janitors -- being the younger and more able-bodied of the group -- have a tendency to use fancier flips and twirls to traverse pits and enemies, whereas the grizzled and hard-nosed Green Janitor can’t be bothered with adding flash to his moves, so he lets his vacuum do all the hard work. 

It’s the small touches of detail and care put into Dustforce that really got my attention; not in just the characters and animations but also in the environments. One moment that sticks out the most for me was during a trek past a wooded area where it was quickly becoming dusk and I had made it into the caverns. As I explored further, running past old ruins and the helpful forest folk, I had found a lone tree at the bottom of a pit. Upon moving closer to inspect the tree, a small firefly started to buzz around and illuminate it. These are the little touches that add a sense of life and charm to your world.

At first, sweeping your way through four different environment types doesn’t sounds like a whole lot of variety, but the amount of visual diversity found in these levels, along with their intricate designs, gives the player varied avenues to explore. The Nexus, the game’s central hub, is the ultimate example of this. The Nexus seamlessly blends all of the visual themes found in the game into one large area for you to explore. Within the forest areas, you can find dry and windy mountain summits along with the rolling green hills filled with woodland creatures both big and small. The laboratory areas have you crossing a multitude of sections, from cold and sterile research facilities to the electrical hazards and angular hallways of the server rooms.

Dustforce’s audio work is some of the best I have heard from any indie developer. You can really hear the time and effort of Terence Lee in the phenomenal music and sound effects. Each level is accompanied by an entrancing score that helps to drive you forward. The ambient environmental and character sound effects flesh out this world and give it a sense of depth. There were times where I would start a new level and would be so engrossed by the music combined with the sounds of distant animals and the rustling of leaves that I would just stand there and take it all in. The music and visuals work hand-in-hand to deliver a unique and cohesive experience throughout the entire game.

Utilizing all of your dust-busting capabilities is the key to success in Dustforce. Right from the first tutorial, you are given access to the entire arsenal of moves for your character. You can run and climb on almost any surface, and while in mid-air can also perform either a second jump or a dash move. Your character also has two different attacks: one heavy, one light. Similar to the double jump and dash, heavy and light attacks have a wide variety of applications.

With light attacks, the player can strike the enemy multiple times in rapid succession, which is very useful for keeping quick enemies at bay. During long jumps over pits, when the player strikes an enemy in mid-air, they can jump immediately afterwards, allowing them to cheat death for at a least few minutes. Heavy attacks can deal more damage, especially to larger enemy types, but they leave the player vulnerable for a moment. Heavy attacks can also be used to knock the filth off an enemy and project it onto another surface, giving the player an opportunity to get a quick foothold and double jump to safety.

Sweeping up dust also fills up your Combo Gauge, and once full, the player can execute an Area Attack maneuver that will clean any surfaces or enemies in the vicinity. The Area Attack is also quite useful for dealing with a large amount of enemies that congregate at the end of most levels, and it gives players a nice way to cap off a level of difficult platforming with some slow-mo, anime-inspired destruction. Dustforce trims the fat when it comes to controls, keeping things simple and leaving the challenge to level designs.

In order to complete some of the more challenging levels found in Dustforce, a player must have perfect timing and quick reflexes in order to execute the proper moves in the proper order. There were many times when I had an amazing run -- didn’t miss a spot of dust, dodged all of the spike traps -- only to be greeted with an unexpected enemy that knocked out my combo. Thankfully, the controls are all very responsive, and alternate control schemes are supported. I tried Dustforce with both the standard keyboard controls and with a gamepad; I felt as if the latter gave me tighter control of my character.

The levels come in a variety of types to challenge different aspects of your platforming skills. You have your standard obstacle course type of level, where the player must run, jump, and dodge while cleaning up all the filth they find to reach the end. There are enemy challenge rooms, again the conceit is the same, but with so many obstacles in the way, players need to slow down and take their time in order to keep up their combo chain. There are also puzzle levels that offer a more methodical challenge. Most levels are complete when the last enemy is clean; what these puzzle levels offer is a small room with a lot of dust and only a few enemies. The challenge comes from figuring out a way to clean all surfaces and still clean that final enemy in time to complete the level with a full combo chain.

Another welcome feature is the Tome of Levels, which gives you access to each area’s unlocked levels for a quick sweeping session; it also displays your best rank and your current standings on the world leaderboards for all levels. On top of that, the Tome also allows you to view your own replays, as well as the replays of any player on the leaderboard. For those platforming gurus that can make it through the initial Dustforce levels without batting an eyelash, the developers have also included 16 special Gold rooms to test your skills. These are quite unforgiving, placing insane jump after insane jump that require pixel-perfect timing -- rooms such as these are truly reserved for the platforming elite.

But even with all of the different level types, Dustforce still sticks to its original, demanding level progression philosophy. In order to unlock more levels, players need to earn keys by getting a rank of S on Completion and Finesse. For Completion, the criteria needed for an S ranking is very clear: simply sweep up every piece of dirt in the level. Achieving an S ranking in Finesse is a much more challenging endeavor. Here, players need to keep their combo chain going from the first dust pile to the last filth-encrusted enemy while not getting hit or falling into pits of endless oblivion. This is one of my main issues with Dustforce.

The problem that I see with Dustforce’s level progression system is in the fact that it limits players on how much of the game they will get to experience. Those dedicated players who put in a lot of time and effort will be able to see everything that Dustforce has to offer, but where does that leave the casual player? They are relegated to playing only the initial levels of the game over and over again, in the hopes of reaching an S rank. Why place such a high goal for your players to reach so early, from literally the first level of the game?

The difficulty found in the levels is meticulously designed and balanced in order to challenge the player but to still make it fair and achievable. You could do the same for the level progression system. Instead of keys being given out at the S rank, you could bring the rank requirement down to having B or higher; this way you give players some wiggle room in case they get hit once or lose their combo. For S ranks you could give special keys to unlock even more challenging levels, rewarding those players who put the time and effort into perfecting their run and also giving new players something to try and strive for with a bit more practice. While I do appreciate the challenge that Dustforce offers its players, I find its lack of care for the less-skilled player disappointing.

During my preview article on Dustforce, I also mentioned that I experienced problems with the introduction animation shown at the beginning of the game along with dealing with a substantial number of in-game crashes. I attributed the video problems and crashes to the fact that I was running a preview build of the game. When I downloaded the full retail release of Dustforce, I began to experience the same issues. It didn’t take long for the Steam forums to fill up with threads of players having similar problems. For the first few days I couldn’t play Dustforce without it crashing four to five times a session. During the playthrough of only one level, the game crashed on me eight times in the span of 40 minutes. It made an already challenging game needlessly frustrating, but thankfully the most recent patch update has cleared up the random crashing issue that was plaguing the majority of players.

On top of its large single-player, a few multiplayer modes have been added to Dustforce. At the time of this review, only two modes were available, but Hitbox Team has stated that more modes will be available in the future. Multiplayer also gives players a chance to play from the other side of the filth. You can control one of four villains, based on the four types of junk you have been tackling throughout the game. Both modes are available at the start and allow up to four people to play together in King of the Hill and Survival.

King of the Hill is your standard capture and control point game type. Players fight to control one point in the given arena for an allotted amount of time and the first person to control five points wins the match. Survival mode is where chaos meets push-broom. This arena mode offers combat very similar to the Super Smash Bros. series in a lot of ways. Each player is given a set number of lives, with the objective to knock off of the competition ensuring that you are the last player standing. This mode can get frantic really quickly, especially on those arenas that offer more to worry about than just an endless pit of doom.

From the wide selection of arenas, you can tell that Hitbox Team put a lot of effort into Dustforce’s multiplayer components. In some games, multiplayer can feel like a last-minute, tacked-on addition, but with Dustforce the multiplayer is just as solid as the single-player. With more multiplayer modes coming in the future, along with a level editor, we could see the Dustforce community blow up with tons of user-created content for both single-player and multiplayer.

Dustforce isn’t a game for everyone. Rather, it’s a game geared toward the platforming elite, like those Jump Men and Jump Women who can breeze through Super Meat Boy in their sleep. But it still has a fair bit to offer those of us who enjoy unique visuals and audio work and the occasional return to a different style of play. Initially, Dustforce asks you to keep moving forward and to never stop. Frequently, however, I found myself slowing down or stopping to take in all that Dustforce has to show.

The visual design of a world that can transition from sprawling wilderness to a dusty mansion, then to a desolate mountain top and back to modern city just as seamlessly and naturally as the character's animations is something that doesn’t appear often in games. The music and ambient sounds meld together so well with the levels that it gives its world a larger sense of depth. The intricate and challenging level designs test players more so than your standard platformer, and with the developers adding in secret collectibles and more hidden areas in future updates, players will be searching for a long time to find them all. The world of Dustforce has a lot to offer aside from challenging platforming, and that’s where it shines for me. While the commitment needed in order to progress may be a tall order for some, the rewards are still worth it.

As I said at the beginning of this review, I have played a lot of challenging games in my time, but Dustforce is one that has asked more of me as a gamer than any other in recent memory. It asked me to refine my skills like no other, to sharpen my reflexes and timing until they were absolutely perfect. After all of that hard work, after all that time spent retrying and perfecting your cleaning run, your reward is the chance to do it all over again, but this time on an even harder level. If you’re looking for a challenge, look no further than this platforming gem.

THE VERDICT - Dustforce

Reviewed by Jason Cabral

8.5 /10
Great: Impressive efforts with a few noticeable problems holding it back. Won't astound everyone, but is worth your time and cash. Check out more reviews or the Destructoid score guide.

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