Dustforce Review

It seems that the PC has really become a refuge for gaming conventions that vanished right around the time we started getting fully 3-D titles. Steam in particular sees lots of indie titles popping up on its catalog that forgo the current constraints of gaming and opt for a more nostalgic approach, reinvigorating genres like the side-scrolling platformer in the modern era.

Dustforce is one such modern-day platformer, and by combining a number of elements rather beautifully — art style, precision controlling, updated controls, a great soundtrack and a multiplayer offering — it reminds us why we love the classic games of platforms past so much, and how much there still is to explore in the decades-old genre.

Dustforce: PC (reviewed)
Developer: Hitbox Games
Released: Jan. 17, 2012
MSRP: $9.99

Dustforce combines standard platforming conventions — running, jumping, dodging spikes, clearing gaps — with a more acrobatic control scheme. When you’re playing it at your best, it kind of reminds one of the 3-D free-running title Mirror’s Edge: your goal is to keep moving, picking up speed and avoiding obstacles without them slowing your progress. Each level is timed, and you’re graded on how well you complete each level, as well as how efficiently you do so.

“Completion” in Dustforce refers to how well you clean each of the levels. Dirt makes up tracts on the floors, walls and ceilings, and by running over it or hitting it with a cleaning implement, you can clear that dirt. The more dirt you clean continually, without too much time going between each dusty clutter, the higher your combo becomes. A high combo (and more important, not losing the combo by getting hit or getting your rhythm upset) goes toward your finesse ranking in each level, and is key to advancing through Dustforce. Since dirt is everywhere, you’ll use a number of tools to get at it all, like wall-jumping, running up ceilings and sliding down hills. You’ll also clean filthy animals by slapping them around with your broom or vacuum cleaner.

There are four characters to choose from when you adventure into any given level, and each has different strengths and weaknesses. You also get access to these multiple characters when you play local multiplayer, in which players can split into two teams to compete — one dirtying the level, the other fighting to keep it clean. There are a variety of other modes, keeping the game fresh if you’ve got buddies to play with, and a leaderboard that’s included for every single stage that will likely have many players competing to shave seconds off their best times just to slide a few slots higher on the list.

Interesting is how Dustforce mixes a relaxing, beautiful atmosphere in its presentation with that kind of frustrating, have-to-get-a-better-score difficulty that marks games of this ilk. It’s art style, reminiscent of classics like Another World and Flashback, is refreshingly smooth and understated. Its soundtrack is great, worthy of a download on its own, and perfectly augments the fast-moving but relatively low-stress premise of the game: cleaning, and cleaning well. The dichotomy of the demanding gameplay mixed with this sort of presentation actually makes Dustforce even more enjoyable, because even when you get frustrated from screwing up the same jump 10 times running, the game is still simple and gorgeous all around you. It’s like trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube at a spa.

For $9.99, Dustforce packs it in, too. Levels are arranged in that sort of Metroid overworld style, in which you’ll venture around the 2-D world, opening doors that lead you to actual stages. Many are locked at the outset of the game, and can’t be opened right away — in fact, players are required to excel in a level, earning the best ranks in both completion and finesse, in order to unlock other levels. That’s a tall order, given how challenging Dustforce can usually be, but if you’re looking for a game that’ll keep you coming back, Dustforce will gladly take the job by dangling more levels in front of you and forcing you to step up your game to get to them. The level design is often brilliant throughout, and you’ll want to unlock levels just to see what kinds of new and different challenges they’ll throw your way. There’s also a level editor, which isn’t available yet, that’ll add even more content, as well as give players a chance at tormenting one another through level design.

If there’s trouble with Dustforce — and I’m not saying there is — it’s with the kind of precision it requires in its controls, difficult to attain on a keyboard. You’re going to want a gamepad for this one (or several if you want to play multiplayer), because this is one of those moments where trying to get perfect scores using keys like z, x, c and ctlr in rapid succession will just hold you back. Dustforce is the kind of skill-based, reflex-heavy title that begs for controls that are more precise, and while you can remap your keyboard as you see fit, in the end you’re probably better off with the muscle memory of a controller in hand.

I can’t even really stand behind that complaint — Dustforce requires you to be so good that you’ll want to blame your keyboard for holding you back (I certainly did). It’ll trouble some with its skill demands, but for those who like a challenge and a very well-made game in the vein of Super Meat Boy and others like it, Dustforce is a steal at $10. Buy it. Buy it now.

Pros:

  • Tough, intricate levels that demand a lot of skill
  • Beautiful graphical presentation
  • Great soundtrack
  • Tons of content, unlocked only when you get good enough to achieve it
  • Lots of challenge
  • Solid controls that add to the larger platformer genre
  • Local platforming multiplayer
  • Level editor on its way

Cons:

  • Too tough for some players
  • Can get frustrating

Final Score: 95/100

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2 Comments on Dustforce Review

Nixitur

On January 24, 2012 at 6:13 am

Actually, whether you are better with a gamepad or keyboard is really just personal preference. I tried playing with an XBox 360 controller and a PS2 style controller and I fared much worse than with a keyboard.
Not to mention that unlike Super Meat Boy, this game was developed with keyboard controls in mind, so using an analog stick is a bad idea and the d-pad on the 360 controller is in a really uncomfortable position.
I really don’t get why many people say that keyboard controls are lacking in precision. Yes, you only have 8 directions and that definitely isn’t enough for many games, but it is for this one.

Phil Hornshaw

On January 24, 2012 at 6:31 am

@nixitur

I think for my part, it was less that the keyboard lacked precision — the controls are pretty solid — and more that precision is just harder to achieve using keyboard controls. The movement keys weren’t my issue, the action keys were: ctrl, z, x and c are a little awkward because they’re small buttons that all feel the same and are packed close together. Given how fast you need to move in Dustforce a lot of the time, this tripped me up and made me think the distinction of a gamepad felt better. You’re right about it being a personal preference situation, though.