What do you get when you take an obsessive compulsive drive toward cleanliness and combine it with parkour and ninja training? You get Dustforce, an awesome yet frustrating platformer coming out of Hitbox Team and Capcom. Dustforce belongs in the same category as games such as Super Meat Boy and I Wanna Be the Guy. It’s mind bogglingly difficult and will have you replaying stages again and again and again, but for some reason you just don’t get tired of it. Perhaps it’s the minimalist aesthetic. Perhaps it’s the rocking soundtrack. Perhaps it’s the fact that obsessive compulsion and gaming go together like peanut butter and exactly 14.3 grams of jelly. Whatever the reason, Dustforce is incredibly fun.
The goal in Dustforce is to clean. Not just a little. Everything. Someone has tracked mud into a series of ultra-hard platforming levels, and it’s up to you to make them spic and span. Simply running over a patch of dirt cleans it up, but unfortunately dirt has gotten to places other than just the ground. You’ll find dirt on ramps and walls and ceilings and in all sorts of hard to reach places. So the only way to successfully clean it all is to wall jump and run from surface to surface.
As you clean surfaces, you’ll notice that your combo counter starts to grow. This is where the key challenge of the game lies. Taking too long between cleanings triggers your OCD and makes your combo counter fall to zero, which will negatively affect your grade at the end of the stage. Dustforce practically demands that your best speed run efforts, always pushing you toward the next patch of dirt, forward toward the stage’s end. In fact, Dustforce keeps track of your time and score on every stage, just in case you want to show off your speedrunning skills on the leaderboards.
Blocking your speedy progress are a number of enemies who are also covered in dirt. These enemies aren’t particularly threatening, but they do cause you to stop for a minute in order to kill them, risking losing your combo. You have access to a light attack, which is quick but will take multiple hits to kill tougher enemies, and a heavy attack, which is slow but can one hit most enemies, even smacking them into walls and splattering their dust around for quick cleaning. Attacks also increase your cleaning range, allowing you to clean platforms that you couldn’t otherwise land on.
If your combo counter climbs high enough, you’ll eventually gain access to a super attack which instantly clears all enemies and dust on the screen. When you first gain access to this powerful beatdown, it seems like overkill. There are never quite enough enemies on screen to warrant using it as a last resort or anything like that. However, you quickly realize that its real use is to clear huge patches of dirt that would typically be well out of your way. This will allow you to bypass huge sections of a level, shaving precious seconds off your time.
Before each level you can choose between multiple different cleaning ninjas to control, and this choice affects how you progress through each level. For example, there is a character with less range and lower attack power but higher attack speed and more mid-air jumps than the rest of the cast. She is perfect for enemy-light levels, or levels with difficult jumps that you want to make more forgiving. Similarly, there is a slower and more powerful character that jumps incredibly high, which you probably wouldn’t want to use in any but the most vertical or enemy-heavy stages. Every level can be completed with every character, however, and you’ll likely pick your favorite and stick with him or her throughout most of the game.
Dustforce is deceptively easy when it first begins. You’ll jump a bit here or there, make a flying leap off a wall, nothing that you haven’t seen in a platformer before. Things quickly get more complicated from there. You’ll find jumps that appear to be too long to make, and it’s then that you realize your attacks allow you to stay airborne just a little bit longer. Soon, these gaps are filled with enemies and you’ll have to attack them all as you make your way across the chasm. Before you know it you’ll be falling through spiked gaps that are only one pixel wide and surviving. The final levels of Dustforce seem almost sadomasochistic in nature, with spikes lining nearly every platform that doesn’t have dust on it. In fact, there are literally levels in this game where you make a jump after the start and don’t touch the ground once until the end.
Dustforce isn’t for everyone. In fact, it seems particularly geared toward the hardcore crowd. It doesn’t let you waltz through levels with “good enough” scores. It actually locks later levels of the game until you manage to produce something comparable to a semi-decent speed run. This can be incredibly frustrating to gamers that never tried to speed run a game in their life. It’s entirely possible that you will never see the final level of the game if you don’t sit down and repeatedly embed the most efficient cleaning route for every level into your muscle memory.
It’s worth mentioning Dustforce’s presentation, which is top of the line for an indie platformer. Animations are incredibly fluid, stages are bright and vivid, and the soundtrack is outstanding. Full of retro chiptunes that pound out a calming techno beat, the soundtrack goes a long way to keep you playing. If it weren’t for these zen like tunes calming you down as you attempt perilous jump after perilous jump, you might throw your Vita out the window in frustration.
Dustforce originally came out for the PC, but the PS3 and PS Vita versions are far more enjoyable. You simply don’t get the same split second control from a keyboard that you do from a gamepad. The game does particularly well on the Vita, as every stage, when successfully run, only takes about a minute or so. It’s easy to pick up, easy to play for long periods of time, and easy to put down, perfect for a portable title. Portable or not, Dustforce is an amazing hardcore platformer. If you like playing games for the challenge, then definitely give it a shot.
This review was based on a purchased digital copy of Dustforce for the Vita.