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Getting down and dirty with Dustforce [Review]

19 Jan 2012  by   Paul Younger

I’m always impressed when a game is able to make me care about something I’d previous found quite mundane and functional. Thief managed to make me wary of the floor, in case I made too much noise and alerted a guard, and now Dustforce has made me obsessive about dust. Though not to the point where I’m wiping household items down with anti-septic gel before I touch them, thankfully.

Rather, Dustforce has made me obsess about collecting dust with several of the world’s most athletic janitors. Spread across 2D platforming levels in four different ‘zones’, connected by a central nexus, Dustforce challenges you to sweep up every piece of trash on a given level while maintaining a timed combo. Then it shows you how much faster everybody else managed it and makes you do it again. And again. Until you start to consider whether Pro Broom Handling should be an Olympic sport.

To demonstrate precisely what the title is like, I’ve put together a guided video of a couple of levels in action. Have a watch, and I’ll meet you after you’re done.

[video2=2664]

All finished? Great. For anybody who couldn’t be bothered to view my little tour (shame on you), the main aim on every level is to use one of the four playable characters (each of whom has subtly different abilities) to sweep the detritus-covered platforms in record time. By making deft use of the double-jump and dash functions, as well as limited wall and ceiling running, you’ll be able to mop up every speck of dirt and avoid being hit (which would send your combo spinning sadly back down to zero).

Do this well enough, and you’ll earn the coveted double-S rating for both Completion and Finesse, resulting in the award of a shiny key which can be used to open up brand new levels. Finishing a standard level gets you a silver key, and finishing up a silver level enables you to unlock a gold door.

At least, that’s the theory. What you may very well get distracted by (if trying to get a double-S on some of the fiendishly tricky levels isn’t enough) is trying to whizz through a level at high speed to climb the leaderboards. If you’re the sort of person who spent most of Trackmania 2 trying to shave off 0.001 of a second from lap times, Dustforce will be just as much of a time sink.

It’s a game that appeals to, and cultivates, that sense of perfectionism. Sure, you can get a double-S on the opening Downhill level. But can you do it in under 20 seconds? How about under 15? At the time of writing, only a couple have. To really be a janitorial master, you need to top that. Your pride demands it. Helpfully, it’s possible to watch a full replay of every run in the top 10, which gives you a chance to study just how they did it so fast.

This, of course, demands pin-point precision from the game’s controls, which is something Dustforce delivers … most of the time. I’ve experimented with both keyboard and gamepad here (the latter isn’t automatically recognised, but you can set the inputs up in-game pretty easily) and haven’t quite been able to find a control scheme I’m comfortable with. When everything clicks, you’re able to flow through levels with a tremendous rhythm of jumps, slides and broom-swishes, but every so often a double-jump might fail, or a mid-air dash that you thought would be possible doesn’t come off.

It’s not a regular occurrence by any means, and your ability to judge moves almost certainly improves with practice (I’ve already improved in the time I’ve spent with it). But when a title is so focused on precision and perfection, players need one hundred percent confidence in the control scheme. Right now, Dustforce is at about a ninety-five.

From the stills and video on this page, you should already able to tell that Dustforce looks gorgeous. It has something of a similar palette to Super Meat Boy, and the same kind of approach to shading, but takes it in a direction that’s charming rather than deranged. The music, too, is a wonderful treat; the kind of tracks that manage to exhibit fearsome originality, but also make you nostalgic for the chiptunes of old. You’ll be bobbing along to these beats … until you start cursing when a stray bear causes you to lose your combo about two inches from the finish line.

Sadly, there’s no co-op play on offer, and the multiplayer (which takes the form of fun Super Smash Bros. Melee-style brawls) is local only. The developers are still updating the game though (a level editor is coming soon), so one day you may be crossing brooms with people online.

Back in single player, it’s great to see a game so dedicated to improving (and rewarding) player skill. You’ll only progress beyond the first sixteen levels or so by ‘double-S-ing’ a few rooms, and you’ll only do that with practice. It’s a demanding design decision, because it only rewards (near) perfection; but that simply raises your sense of accomplishment when you finally best a confounding level or two.
If you’re lacking the time-attack obsession gene, or get easily discouraged by triciker games, Dustforce probably isn’t for you. Everyone else, get your brooms at the ready.

Dustforce is out now on Steam, priced at $10 USD (or regional equivalent)

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