This week we will be looking at Dustforce, a game that caught our attention thanks primarily to its intriguing visuals, but also because it seemed to be trying to make janitorial work hardcore. We had to see for ourselves how that came out, and having given it a try, I can safely say that ninjas definitely make the best janitors.
The visual style of Dustforce is striking. Everything has an anime inspired look to it, which fans of the genre should know translates to a relatively low number of frames, each one of which is absolutely gorgeous. Characters and enemies move in animations of only a few poses each, but they are more than enough to give the motions personality and distinctiveness. Rather than simply palette swapping for the four main characters, you get to pick from a young man, and young woman, a little girl, and an old man. There are major differences in all of the animations and appearances aside from color, such as the old man being armed with a vacuum in contrast to the little girl’s twin dusters.
These characters will scrub their way through four different environments ranging from a forest, to a lab. Each has not only an extremely appropriate atmosphere, but basic differences in enemies and grime. The forest, for example, will have you cleaning up leaves and bashing leaf-infected animals, while the castle is dusty and littered with gargoyles. Regardless of where you’re doing your cleaning, the visual effects as you brush away the filth are extremely well done, animating fluidly and beautifully. I particularly liked the way the leaves would flutter and disperse as you clean them up. The DBZ-esque area attacks and trailing energy charge you get from high combos were striking as well.
Dustforce is vaguely similar to a number of different games out there, which comprise a genre I tend to call “Precision Platformer.” Games like Super Meat Boy and N+ are prime examples. Rather than the traditional “Get from point A to point B and pick up some collectibles” format, Dustforce refines the formula. You have the usual level of acrobatic prowess, including dash, air-dash, double jump, wall run, ceiling run, and ground pound. However, sections of the floor, walls, and ceiling are coated with level-appropriate grime. Your goal is to clean up as much of it as possible. Each interaction with dirt will tick up your combo meter. The combo keeps building until you either hit spikes or fall off the screen, ending your combo (and your life), or until you don’t clean anything for a few seconds or get hit by an enemy. Ideally, you’ll want to clean up the entire level and reach the end in one continuous combo. Doing so earns you a key which can be used to open additional levels. Failure to perfect the level nets you a letter grade in completion and finesse.
It is worth pointing out that you aren’t only dealing with piles of dust. Enemies of varying levels of dirtiness and sturdiness are scattered throughout the level, and you have to clean them up to get 100% completion. To do so, you are given a swift weak attack that simply brushes them off and a slow heavy attack that actually knocks the grime off of the enemy and onto the level, forcing you to clean it up from there. Knowing which one to use and when is no simple task, because frequently knocking the dirt off can provide a stretch of muck that you can use to bridge two more distant ones and keep that precious combo going. If your combo fills up sufficiently, you can also do a screen clearing attack, which can be an essential tool when you are going for quickest time to completion. There are also breakaway floors and walls that can only be safely traversed once.
These many elements, combined with subtle differences in the characters, combine to produce a surprisingly tactical game. You need to plot out a course that keeps your momentum up, takes you across all of the filth on the level with no long gaps, and provides you with enough space and combo meter, at the right times, to wipe out your enemies without getting touched. Perhaps most motivating of all, though, is the fact that the game keeps track of your performance, and allows you to review your run and compare it to other players from around the world. This should be plenty of motivation to keep the average score-hound coming back to try to one-up the other players, but multiplayer modes like king of the hill and survival extend the play time even further when you’ve got a few friends around the house.
The gameplay isn’t perfect (I occasionally had difficulty differentiating navigable parts of the level from the background, for instance), but most of my complaints mostly center on the UI. Naturally I was interested in playing this game with a controller, and though it is supported, it isn’t as turnkey as many other games make it, requiring you to do your own mapping. This is a plus in that it allows you to pick what buttons you want to use for what actions, but once they are mapped, those buttons take over the menu as well. I kept trying to restart a botched level only to realize that up and down on the keyboard couldn’t navigate the menus anymore. I NEEDED to use the controller. It is a small foible, yes, but it bugged the heck out of me, because I botched levels a lot. Also, the multiplayer is local only, which might seem a bit odd for some, but it is nonetheless enjoyable.
The music in this game is suitable, and as good game music should, it fades into the background while providing the appropriate mood for its setting. If you find yourself enjoying it, by the way, you might want to check it this site.
You are one of an elite group of janitorial acrobats, dedicated to cleaning up the world in the fastest and fanciest way possible. Also, the dirt makes animals hostile. I’m not sure where that fits in, but it must, otherwise I was running around beating bears and racoons with a broom for no reason.
Dustforce is definitely a fun game, and one that will inspire you to perfect the mechanics and replay the same course a dozen times just to see if you can trim a few precious seconds off of your time. Games like this provide you with effectively unlimited replay value. Once a few of the rough edges of the UI are smoothed out, I’d be hard pressed to find anything to complain about.
8.5 / 10: Dustforce is a fun precision platformer that will bring a smile to the face of N+ and Super Meat Boy fans.