If you’ve ever enjoyed doing the challenges in games you like, whether it’s not taking any damage or trying to beat them as fast as you can, that’s Dustforce in a nutshell. I’ve been trying to beat games from series like Mega Man in as fast and as many different ways as possible for as long as I can remember. Speed runs, no special weapons, no damage… whatever made the game interesting. Dustforce is the embodiment of that kind of replayability, a game made for those who want to pursue perfection.
Dustforce is a precision platformer that puts you in the role of one of four adrenaline-fueled ninja janitors on a quest to save their surrounding area from the threat of dust, mold, slime, and leaves. Originally released on PC in 2012, it’s recently been ported to consoles and I had a chance to check out the PS3 version of the game.
Movement is what immediately stood out to me in Dustforce. The cast of ninja-janitors are naturally very athletic, allowing for double jumps, dashes, and wall climbing. It’s very reminiscent of N and the later Mega Man X games, although Dustforce’s controls have a weight to them that differentiates the experience. That weight works hand-in-hand with the game’s core: momentum.
Simply put, you want to go fast and need to do everything in your power to do so. Everything you do is important, including the directional buttons you’re holding down. If you aren’t changing your direction at the exact right times, you can end up losing your speed and missing a vital jump. At times the controls felt unresponsive, but in actuality I think they’re just very precise. Good timing and execution is necessary to get the most out of your movement arsenal.
Interestingly, Dustforce uses its myriad of movement options in order to offer some exploration in the environments. This is most notable in the hub areas of the game, where you traverse five different environments in order to get to the actual levels. While many of the level entrances are right in your face, others require some elaborate jumps across the area to discover. These offer some unique opportunities to explore the game’s mechanics in interesting ways, and they were a surprisingly neat addition. Exploration isn’t really what the game is about though, at least not in terms of finding hidden routes.
Your true path is already laid out in the form of dust trails; it’s up to you to clean it all up in the most efficient way possible. Using your acrobatic move set established, you must jump and sweep your way through elaborate platforming levels that are just waiting to murder you. After a few levels it quickly became apparent that Dustforce is a difficult game. Combined with the momentum-based nature of the game and some dastardly level design, being a janitor in this world requires nerves of steel.
Enemies will assault you during your cleaning crusade, and initially they seem like total pace-killers. Not only can they take a ton of damage, but it’s easy for their attacks to knock you off course. Slowly I figured out that they all had certain tricks to them, and these battles actually became one of my favorite aspects of the game. Learning to fight all of these enemies efficiently is essential, as they factor into your final ranking.
Dustforce judges you on two criteria: completion and finesse. Completion is scored by how thorough your cleaning job was, while finesse concerns how long you kept your cleaning streak up without pause. In order to get the best rankings (an S for each category, referred to as an SS rank) it’s almost required to do multiple playthroughs for each level. Since your paths are essentially pre-set by the dust trails, memorization and efficiency are huge parts in performing well.
Good grades are important, as the better you do the more keys you get to unlock the next level. This isn’t a game you’ll just blow through in an afternoon and get to the end; it’s about playing the same level for hours just trying to get one flawless run before moving on. It’s not a straight progression, as there is some leeway in getting keys, but to unlock every level you will eventually need to get SS ranks for every level.
While tying progression to perfection is a great motivator, it’s also a double-edged sword. Namely, it makes the game seem a little too harsh for its own good. Wiping an entire level clean can be surprisingly stressful. Almost every run I found myself doubling back and being overly cautious about missing dust, as some trails are small and easily blend in with the background. Even one speck could be the difference between an A or an S rank, and reaching the end of a great run just to get a disappointing grade for missing one little dust mound can be incredibly disappointing. That’s only if you can reach the end of a level, however.
My biggest issue with Dustforce is it only gives you the first few pages of its rulebook and demands you figure out the rest. There’s an optional tutorial for basic movements, but it’s not nearly enough to get you through the whole game. Multiple scenarios popped up in the harder levels that I had no idea how to tackle, resulting in a ton of deaths where I learned nothing. Thankfully Dustforce has been out on PC for a while so there’s information available, but without some kind of in-game advanced tutorial the later levels feel unfair.
Many of the mechanics are difficult, but others are just plain unintuitive. There are tricky ones like jumping across ceilings, which works fine but takes heaps of practice. Then there are concepts like spike jumping, which allows you to propel yourself off of spikes that would normally kill you. The game gives no indication that something like this is possible, and I don’t know how you could discover this technique other than by accident or watching a speed run. Occasionally people in the hubs give hints, but they never explain anything too advanced.
All that said, when you finally do pull off a level it’s extremely satisfying. Combining all your knowledge, execution, and reactions into one glorious run is one of the best pay-offs you could ask for in a game. Perfect performance brings out the true beauty of Dustforce—when the fast pace, smooth animation, and chip-tune soundtrack work in tandem it’s almost a Zen-like experience. Every success is precious, and the game knows it. One of my favorite smaller features is that you’re able to download replays of a level after you’ve completed it, immortalizing your victory onto your console’s hard drive.
Perhaps the best way to describe Dustforce is that it’s an investment. There’s loads of mechanical depth, levels, and play styles that make up the experience, but in order to grasp it all you need time and research. The rougher design decisions are especially apparent considering that this is a port of a game that’s been out since 2012, so one might think this new release would be more streamlined. At its core, though, Dustforce is satisfying game that is practically begging to be mastered. All you need is some dedication, a broom, and an obsessive need to clean.
Food for Thought:
1. There are some smart additions in the options menu that make going for SS ranks much more manageable like the ability to turn off checkpoints, activate a quick reset, and adjust controller sensitivity. These are all nice features, but the omission of custom control schemes is glaring.
2. This is the only game I’ve ever found controller rumbling to be distracting. The vibrations are very strong and they happen often when fighting enemies or dying at a tricky spot. I looked all over for a way to turn it off, but it seemed like my only choice was to use an old Sixaxis controller.
3. Dustforce also has a few online multiplayer modes, but I didn’t get a chance to try them. Unfortunately, the online seems to be completely dead already.
4. While I certainly enjoyed playing the PS3 version of the game, I can’t help but feel this is the worst way to play it. I encountered numerous bugs that seem to be common for this port: The Area Attack (essentially a move that clears the screen) is spotty and sometimes it will only kill enemies when it should be clearing dust as well, the music will occasionally suffer from some strange clipping, and when things get too busy on-screen the sound will briefly cut out in general. On top of that, the PC version allows for custom levels and controls, so if you have the option, I would check that out instead.