Dustforce is an intensely difficult indie platforming game.
The gist of the title is that you play some kind of acrobatic janitor (a ninjanitor, if you will) who cleans up everything from laboratories to forests. You clear levels of dust and debris by running over stained platforms, or by bashing enemies and blocks with a blow of your brush. Hitbox Team wring plenty of mileage out of a very simple premise, and the difficulty curve steadily ramps up until it’s Everest steep. This is a game which will require pristine performance and hours of practice to complete. A combo system is present which is forgiving enough for beginners to get a foot up on the stirrup, but the game will eventually demand near-perfect runs of levels in order to unlock more content. You move forwards and backwards, revisiting old levels with a keener sense of skill and knowledge of what movement is possible within the framework of the game, improving upon your grades, until an effortless, unbroken combo flow is achieved throughout the entire level. The sensation of fluidly surmounting obstacles which you initially viewed as impossible is as potent in Dustforce as it is in any of its brutal indie stablemates – Super Meat Boy, VVVVVV, etc – and I’d personally go as far to say that this is the most demanding title in the list.
As with any bastard-hard title, the instantaneous restarts featured take some of the edge out of repeated failure, but the world and music of the game carry their own fair share of the burden. The soundtrack is morphine for the soul; catchy, relaxed and melancholy, all at once, and it’s hard to stay mad at a game which consistently sounds so heartbreakingly beautiful. Airy synths, chiptune melodies, and splashing drum beats score your journey through the universe of Dustforce, and add greatly to the ambience and atmosphere of the place.
Dustforce’s world is a tranquil, introspective one, one that feels like it takes place on the edges of a greater, unseen world. Areas are generally entirely devoid of friendly characters, although remnants of humanity can be found around the stages – bookcases, fireplaces, telescopes, cars. The levels and their respective hubs carry the same segmented feel as the zones of classic Genesis Sonic titles – as though they are snapshots or slinted-views of a world that you never see in its absolute entirety. However, each stage remains grounded within the world and feels as though it is part of an overall progression, illustrated by the changing locations of the stages (eg: the forest stages generally ascend up a mountain, until the final stage is reached at the summit). You travel through a number of varied environments; the City is characterised by distant lights, empty evening parks, deserted alleys and warehouses, and breezy rooftops. The Forest takes in mountain-top temple ruins, rapid sloping race-courses and leafy caves. The Castle runs a gamut of cavernous halls, dusty libraries, starry observatories, and enormous parapets surrounded by banks of clouds, as though they were miles above the ground. The Laboratory encompasses narrow labyrinths lined with deadly electrical wires, digital software cores, industrial corridors and gaping, abandoned chasms. The areas are beautifully melancholy, evoking the delight of having something all to yourself, and the loneliness of having nobody to share it with.
All of this is presented in a clean, colourful art-style with animation that carries a strong sense of momentum and weight. For instance, one stage starts you off on a freefalling descent, and numerous subtle touches make the speed of the fall tangible – straps on the player’s uniform flap rapidly in the fall, and when you finally hit the sloped ramp below, a weighty thump accompanies the tiny pause that occurs before you begin to slide with the speed carried over from the drop. When you’re running through the levels, smoothly transitioning from ceiling to floor, or jumping alternately between the flat walls of a narrow shaft, your character twists, turns and flips, but maintains a constant speed throughout, giving your movement a continuous flowing quality. The basics are easy enough to pick up that even the crappiest of players should be able to experience the inherent fun of this element of the game.
What they won’t be able to do however, is come anywhere close to finishing the game. And to be honest, I have no problem with that. As so many modern games allow even the most ham-fisted of players to reach the end, it’s a bit of a breath of fresh air when a title comes along that won’t even let you come close to the completion screen without some major effort. There’s a kind of retro-magic to the fact that so few of us will ever get to play on the final suite of end-game stages, but we’re still not completely excluded at the same time, thanks to the game’s robust leaderboard replay function. We’ll still get to experience the climactic moments of the stunning final stages, but as an audience rather than as a participant, watching seasoned veterans execute perfect runs of impossibly difficult levels. In this way, even if the thumbstick gymnastics demanded of you prove to be too difficult to execute, plenty of enjoyment can be wrung out of the game as a wide-eyed spectator.