As I recover from self-diagnosed carpal tunnel syndrome, I reflect on my past few days with indie developer Hitbox Team’s new 2D platformer, Dustforce. It’s a game that I’ve heard mentioned on the internet every once in a while for the past few months, and over the past week it’s blown up all over the indie gaming community. Hearing that it was to rival Super Meat Boy in both quality and difficulty really piqued my interest…and terrified me. So when I was asked to review the game, I blurted out the word “yes” halfway through the proposal. Then, after a few minutes of mentally preparing myself for hours of keyboard smashing and screaming, I booted it up. As the intro cinematic rolled before my eyes, I just knew. This was love.
The premise of the game is that you are an acrobatic janitor, an “adept force against dust and disorder”, and you are cleaning up the world, one area at a time by leaping off walls and ceilings, sliding down hills, jumping over obstacles and fighting the local wildlife who are corrupted by dirt. If that sounds awesome, it’s because it is. The cinematic is short, to the point, and a perfect introduction to the beauty that is Dustforce. A brief clip of each playable character using their cleaning tool of choice, followed by the game’s four villains brandishing weapons corresponding with the themes of the four game worlds. The scene showcases the gorgeous art style and it’s all set to amazing music.
As soon as the scene ends and you start the game, you’re dropped into a small room. The room serves as a hub to get between different game worlds and also contains the tutorial level, a door to multiplayer, and a level editor (which was unfortunately not yet implemented, but I’m excited to see what that puppy can do). I went to the tutorial first, and it gave me a brief taste of how to move around and interact in the game, but it still didn’t give me a feel for the game. I excitedly slid down the hill to the first level using my new found abilities and when I entered the level, I realized how fluid the controls were. It was a simple level where I only needed to use a couple moves, mainly sliding and wall running, but it was so fun and satisfying to sweep away the leaves in my path without stopping or missing a beat. Everything flowed perfectly.
On every level, you are timed and graded on two different scores. First is completion. Sure, you can get from point A to point B, but can you clean up every single blemish, smudge, and stain? The second is finesse. Alright, you can clean up every single inch of a level. But can you do it without stopping to catch a breath and without getting hit? Dustforce falls under the category of easy to learn, difficult to master. There are three tiers of levels. The first are unlocked from the get-go. The second tier levels are all protected by a silver lock. To get a silver key, you have to get a perfect score on one of the first tier levels, and to unlock a third tier level, you have to get a perfect score on a second tier level. This is where the game gets tricky. Many of the first tier levels are simple but most take skill and patience. Lots and lots of patience. When you get to the silver keys, there are even fewer gold keys that are easy to get, and the hard ones are where you may start having some fits of rage reminiscent of Super Meat Boy’s later levels. I’ve heard a lot of self-proclaimed SMB pros say how easy the game looks, and it’s true, very few levels approach the levels of frustration SMB provides. The ones that do, however, do it well.
Sharing the Love
That being said, it’s still very satisfying after half an hour of replaying the same level to finally beat it with the slow-motion finish and then seeing your name on the leaderboard among the other “SS” ranking players. The leaderboard also allows you to view the replay of the number one ranked player which is helpful for improving your playstyle and for discovering new ways to complete seemingly impossible sections of levels. I mentioned a multiplayer mode earlier on, and though it is limited to local games, it is a blast. It’s a king of the hill style game, up to four players compete to collect an orb. Whoever stands on the platform with the orb for about 5 seconds gets a point, and the orb moves. Players are not limited in any way and can beat the crap out of each other in an attempt to stop them from getting the point. I played with only one other person and it got quite chaotic, so I can only guess what a four player game would look like; I would imagine it would get a little out of hand. What I found particularly amazing about this subgame was that Hitbox managed to make competitive multiplayer in a 2D platformer fun and original, a feat I don’t think has been achieved in my time. It’s just a shame that it will be experienced by so small a number of people due to the lack of online play and required Xbox controller for the second through fourth players. Not technically required, but the other option is mapping the other player’s controls to the same keyboard which has never ended well in my experience.
I just can’t get enough of the look and feel of the game. I’ve caught myself on more than one occasion opening up the game just to watch the cut scene and listen to the music for a while. The animation is as fluid as the control and is actually quite impressive. The models respond quickly to whatever surface they are jumping off of or running along and you’ll never feel slowed down by the speed of a character; they’re animated perfectly. Each of the four game worlds felt unique, simple, and exceedingly well crafted. The game runs like a charm and never slowed down while I played. It sounds great as well, and since I started playing, I haven’t been able to get the music out of my head. It’s so calming and it goes so well with the flow of the game. Mike Bezek mentioned in his preview that Terrence Lee, the musician for Dustforce, may have a large number of fans clamoring for a physical soundtrack; count me among them.
Is It Worth Your Money?
Dustforce is a work of art. A beautiful, infuriatingly challenging work of art. With a great soundtrack to boot! It will be released on Steam on January 17th for the low price of $10. Whether you’re a masochistic Super Meat Boy fan waiting for the next game to eat away your life, a fan of platformers, or just someone who enjoys nice looking games, you are in for a treat. I know it’s a little bit early to be declaring a game of the year, but…
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