Sunday, February 9, 2014

REVIEW - Dustforce.

Dustforce is a 2D platformer from Hitbox Team, ported to the PS3 and Vita by QLOC and published (oddly enough) by Capcom.

If you've been waiting for an ultra-challenging platformer on Vita that rivals the ridiculous frame-specific requirements of Super Meat Boy or N+, look no further.  Dustforce will beautifully wipe the floor with you.

Dustgirl is, functionally, almost identical to Dustman. 

It's hard.  Perfection, here - S ranks - are earned by sweeping up every scrap of trash in a level and never letting your "combo" drop - that is, never dying, never falling, never getting hit by an enemy, and never waiting more than four seconds between cleaning a surface or striking an enemy.  It's really, really, really hard.

As a general rule, when I'm playing a Vita game for review, I'm constantly snapping screenshots in search of the choice half-dozen that best represent a game.  With Dustforce, almost every saved screen represents the judgment tally at the end of a level - not just because I finally made it, perfectly, through levels that had been kicking my butt for the previous ninety minutes and need to prove that to someone - but because that is the only point at which one has the time (and peace of mind) to tap the PS button and start.

Dustworth has long, slow jumps, but a massive spread to his vacuum cleaner attacks. 

What exacerbates the tension and frustration you will feel is that unlike any other (better) games I could mention, when you fail in Dustforce, you have no idea why or are being presented with a course that you have no idea how to tackle. You can see where the game expects you to go and have no clue how it expects you to do it, with the arsenal of moves at your disposal.

Most of it seems to be due to a double-jump system that the game only explains in passing, and not in detail - if you leap off a ledge, you have a double-jump to use in mid-air.  Be careful!  If you jump off a ledge too close to its edge, you may have actually run off the ledge, and - once in mid air, one pixel past the ledge - you've technically used your double-jump and will plummet to your doom when you try to clear that big gap.

It's an odd system that feeds you extra double-jumps depending on your actions, and what actions earn you an extra - entirely necessary - jump are inscrutable.  If you strike an enemy in mid-air, you earn an extra jump - that much is clear. Jump to a wall, dash up it, leap to the ceiling, dash across that, drop off the edge of that inverted ledge and you can still tap jump in mid-air to leap to a higher ceiling and keep sweeping - but I have no idea why.

It can be really frustrating - and often feels decidedly unfair - which is why I'm suitably torn when I admit I love Dustforce.

Dustman is, functionally, almost identical to Dustgirl.

Over time, slowly and with lots of practice, Dustforce threads its way into your muscle memory, and you end up getting the prized S-S ranks on courses you never imagined you could even complete, dashing up walls, ping-ponging your way across lonely platforms suspended over instant death, scampering across ceilings and springing from mid-air to a precious patch of safe earth you've never reached before.

Eventually, you find yourself dropping in to a course for the first time, cleaning up bubbling green toxic waste, and you S-S rank it on your first time through the level.  It's like a miracle. You swoop down slides, fling yourself into empty space - krakkrakkrak! - smack the filth off a bird while you're up there, double-jump from that to a wall and scamper upwards, never missing a beat, flowing smoothly from each move into the next.  Somewhere along the way - while Dustforce never actually taught you anything - you learned everything.

Or so you think, until you unlock a more challenging level and for the life of you can't even complete it - tiny scraps of safe wall and ceiling dotting a course consisting entirely of deadly spikes.

I'm almost certain, I will never entirely complete Dustforce.  It asks too much, and I cannot rise to meet it.

It's one of those games I love more than I like, if that makes any sense.  The nervous tension owed by its insane challenge and constant velocity is soothed and mellowed by the game's electro-zen soundtrack

As if to provide a counterpoint to its challenge, everything else about the game is gentle and beautiful. You run through lovely, muted palettes of city rooftops, gothic mansions and techno-labs, sweeping dust from ancient libraries and trash from urban streets.

When monsters appear, corrupted by the filth encrusting their world and bristling with evil little autumn leaves, you smack in to them with mighty, cracking strikes of your broom until the garbage explodes from them, freeing the peaceful animal (or maid, or man) within.

Like in Sonic.

Dustkid's feather dusters have a tiny attack range and she has the smallest jump height of any character -
but she can triple jump, giving her a lot of flexibility.

That's pretty awesome, all on its own.

The animations are all lovely, the cleaning crew swiping at the ground as they dash past, tumbling and flipping through the world.  Bears yawn and begin to snooze after you've cleaned them, and this game has some of the most beautiful attack animations and effects this side of an Arc System Works fighter.

I love Dustforce, but this is not an endorsement without caveats.  I encourage you to invest some time in it, but be warned that it requires an investment before its joys reveal themselves - and even then, its darkest corners may never be revealed.  Some levels will see dozens upon dozens of playthroughs, attempting and failing to perfectly execute each sequence before one perfect run falls in to place, and you manage to nail every jump, every ceiling-run, every attack and dash.

But snapping that S-S rank screen at the end..? That doesn't get old.

While I look forward to the sophomore effort from Hitbox Team - something with smoother edges and a bit more intuitiveness to its 'play - I don't think I'll ever delete this game from my Vita.  I'll snack on it, here and there, when I feel like flying in two dimensions.  When I want something beautiful and pure and uncompromising.


  1. You nailed it. I haven't touched it in years myself, and never actually finished it. But before I put it down, I was both entertained and transfixed.

    Also, I never knew about the triple jumps...

    1. ^.^ Thanks Alex. By the way, as of last week, The Daily Crackpot is officially a Sidebar-Worthy Blog.

    2. (For the record, it was worthy for much longer than that.)