When I think of outstanding indie platformers, Super Meat Boy tends to spring to mind. Precision controls, simple mechanics, challenging levels, and lightning-fast restarts made Super Meat Boy such an enjoyable experience that few titles have managed to replicate it. Dustforce, recently released on PSN, certainly tries.
When things click in Dustforce, you'll definitely have some fun. I love the concept behind the game, where you select from four available characters and are tasked with cleaning up each level. The default character sweeps, one dual-wields feather dusters, and another has a vacuum strapped to his back. Stages feature dirt, dust, slime and other form of debris, and they give you an indication of the optimal path. Enemies are presented as inanimate objects or people who are covered in so much filth that they've become evil. Each character has weak and strong attacks but no life bar to manage. Instead, getting hit by an enemy knocks your point combo multiplier down to zero, significantly impacting the quality of your score at the end of the stage. Stages are scored on an S scale in two different categories: completion and finesse. Achieving either can be quite difficult, and getting both in any given stage takes some patience and time.
My largest complaint is with the controls, which can feel awfully unresponsive on your first pass at the game. Instead of focusing on 2-D platforming, which requires you to jump, double-jump, or wall-jump, Dustforce introduces a short dash, wall-running and ceiling-running. It is evident that levels are designed around an optimal path for the best possible score. While any good platformer should take a certain degree of practice before nailing a particularly difficult run, it often feels like Dustforce is fighting against what the player actually wants to do.
Ceiling runs were a big issue for me. When the player pushes forward in any given direction, the selected character continues to run a short distance up any wall, without any additional button presses or actions. This concept is the same for ceilings, so if you jump and push up and then forward, you'll run upside-down for a little while. There are many stages that require this, but it never seems to work consistently. I'm positive that a lot of the issues are on my end, but Dustforce does a poor job of explaining how this should be executed. There are some optional, limited tutorial functions at the outset of the game, but it wasn't enough to give me a firm grasp on the ceiling-running mechanic.
One major benefit is the leaderboard replays, where you can view what other players have accomplished and attempt to replicate those actions. Of course, it's still difficult to emulate top-tier players, but watching the replays provide some indication of what to do. On the one hand, I hate to ask for more handholding in video games, but I couldn't help but feel that Dustforce would have benefited from more virtual training wheels to acclimate players to the title. I certainly improved to a point where finishing most levels wasn't an issue, but I never felt the process was smooth and natural.
Dustforce also nails its distinct visual style. Everything is played out in a 2-D field like most indie platformers. The four characters have a fair amount of detail on the character select screen and game intro, but when you're playing, you see something akin to a colored silhouette. Stage design has some more detail, including a range of locales from laboratories to brooding castle interiors. The stages are laid out in a particular way, but you can tackle most of these stages however you wish, so while you're getting acclimated to the "best" way of completing the stage, you can explore the level.
Character death leads to quick restarts, with frequent checkpoints to keep Dustforce from feeling overly frustrating. The difficulty can certainly be high, but the developers made the right choice with the quick restarts, so you're hooked into trying it "one more time," just like Super Meat Boy. I also appreciated that the differences in characters were not just cosmetic, so if you're having difficulty on a given stage, you might want to try someone else from the roster. It was difficult to tell if any stage was built with a certain character in mind, but there are definitely areas where my performance benefited greatly by alternating between the available characters.
Finally, the soundtrack is absolutely fantastic. The music is certainly my favorite aspect of Dustforce, and it's nearly worth the price of admission. I've heard a lot of excellent soundtracks over the past year, but the music in Dustforce easily propels this soundtrack to one of the top spots. There's a low-key, ambient vibe to the music that has a calming effect, which works as a great counterbalance to the tough-as-nails platforming gameplay, and that strikes me as a fantastic idea with excellent execution. Many titles tend to create a soundtrack that works in tandem with the on-screen action, but Dustforce takes an alternate approach that really works in its favor.
I'm still not in love with everything Dustforce does. The platforming falls short at the hands of the controls, which you can adapt to, but not with the same level of consistency found in like-minded platformers. The wall-running issues, along with the slight delay in jumps, feel at odds with the level of precision necessary to do well. There were points where I realized my inability to double-jump was because I was running just past a ledge, triggering what I thought was my first jump to actually become the second. That issue seems to stem from the slight pause in pressing the jump button and actually seeing it on-screen. It's like playing on a monitor or TV with an extreme level of delay, which isn't something I want to see in any platforming experience.
I'd hesitate to suggest Dustforce as a must-play type of game, but for the cost of entry, you'll get some enjoyment out of it. Dustforce offers up a distinct visual style, fantastic soundtrack, and many challenging levels, but it doesn't excel at everything. I can appreciate the developers trying to evolve past the Super Meat Boy experience, but there's a reason why SMB continues to impress by keeping things simple. With time and practice, my opinion of Dustforce might improve a little, but not enough to completely ignore the game's core issues. If you can pick up Dustforce on sale and you have some tolerance for tough, 2-D platforming, it's worth checking out.
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