The world is dirty and needs cleaning. That doesn’t sound like much of a premise for a compelling video game but somehow, it works. It works because developer Hitbox gives these speedy janitors the incomparable skills of a ninja, so we can defy gravity and remove filth at the same time. As a fast-paced action/platformer with nicely designed levels and a bizarre sense of immersion, Dustforce has a few idiosyncrasies but overall, it’s a unique, oddly appealing little game.
Part of that appeal is a result of the quirky technical presentation. As you can might guess from the available media, this is a colorful, diverse, even psychedelic visual palette that will keep you on your toes. Even though you’re “cleaning,” you’re certainly not cleaning the halls of any recognizable building; you’re ripping through fantastical environments that are more reminiscent of old-school platformers. The game relies on its strong design and a few slick animations, as the focus remains firmly fixated on the gameplay.
The audio plays a more important role, as we’re treated to an electro, trancelike score that acts as a really cool contrast to the pell-mell gameplay. It’s almost as if the music attempts to hypnotize you and when in that half-conscious trance, you’ll pull off your absolute best moves. There’s something surreal about the entire game, and the combination of the soundtrack and graphical display makes for a singular experience. You’ve never played anything quite like Dustforce and each technical element continually reminds you of that fact.
As is the case with most platformers, describing the basics is relatively straightforward: Your goal is to clean as quickly and efficiently as possible; dirt and filth is in the way, as are numerous weird enemies. You can run and jump, of course, but the gameplay really shines when you start stringing movement together in mid-air. As you will discover in the game’s comprehensive tutorial, controlling your character’s gravity-defying capability is the key to high scores. For instance, most characters can double-jump or dash in mid-jump, which adds a new dimension to the core mechanic.
If you can manage to defeat an enemy in mid-air, you’ll be able to jump or dash again. You’re always looking for ways to increase your combo meter, which responds to your frenetic – yet controlled – movement. The control is tight and responsive and it’s all a matter of firmly grasping the quick, highly stylized mechanic. If you can bounce around with precision and poise, ridding the level of dust and foes, you’ll be rewarded with keys that unlock more challenging stages. You’re trying to nab both the best time and the highest overall score; there are leaderboards for each category.
When it comes to facing enemies, you have access to light and heavy attacks. Chaining your attacks pushes you through the air, all the while hammering on the hapless foe. The interesting part is that nailing an opponent with one super heavy attack is a fast way to finish the fight, but the enemy will leave behind a patch of filth. Yep, you gotta clean that up, which adds to the time. Everything you do builds up the combo meter, though; once it’s full, you can unleash a massive attack that clears the entire screen. The gameplay really is one very intriguing balancing act.
Dash, jump, fight, and see if you can locate the fastest path through the stage. The replay value is high because you’ll always want to top your best score, and there are over 50 levels to attempt and conquer. However, I think the developer let a little vagueness creep into the experience, which sort of stretches the learning curve. For example, I really had to experiment with each of the four characters before I could determine their respective strengths and weaknesses. See, the game never bothers to tell you. Even after several hours of play time, I’m still not 100% certain of each character’s skillset.
Then there’s the multiplayer, which is even hazier. It’s a twist on the single-player goal but unfortunately, there’s virtually no instruction. If you play for a bit, you’ll realize that some players are cleaners while the others are actually filth-spreaders. Even then, though, you won’t have a clear understanding of the purpose, which is pretty damn annoying. It could be lots of fun; the problem is that because everyone who signs on seems a little lost, the action is mostly not enjoyable. It’s even hard to tell if the gameplay itself is inspired and rewarding, primarily because it’s not very well defined at all.
I also have a small problem with the overall feel of the game, in that I question the responsiveness of some of the controls. At first, I just thought it was a matter of that relatively steep learning curve. I did get a better grasp of the interesting mechanic as time went on, but there were still times when I was convinced my character didn’t respond accordingly to my commands. Aside from that, the game is lots of fun to play, especially if you get caught up with earning the best scores and throwing down the fastest times. All the better if you can get some friends involved in the fun, so you can compare scores on the leaderboards.
Dustforce is highly entertaining and absolutely unique. It has a few small drawbacks common to lower-budget efforts, but these hang-ups can’t cripple a decent, well-designed game. I’m willing to bet nobody on earth would’ve thought cleaning up a mess could be fun, but Hitbox proved ‘em all wrong. I wish it wasn’t quite so vague in certain instances and the controls can be a tad quirky, but the result is undeniably attractive. That goes double if you really like action/platformers with singularly odd concepts and an addictive hook.
The Good: Really cool visual presentation. Decidedly fitting score. Very well-designed stages. Nicely paced, with a decent challenge. Can prove highly addicting.
The Bad: Responsiveness and control can be iffy. No direction for multiplayer.
The Ugly: “These guys are dirtying the place up…so…what do I do again?”
2/11/2014 Ben Dutka