This year’s PS Vita Play promotion started off strong with Roll 7’s OlliOlli before going big in its second week with Namco-Bandai’s Battle of Z. Now, in Week 3, we’re splitting the difference as Capcom is publishing the console versions of Dustforce, an Indie PC title from developer Hitbox Team. It’s an old-school 2D platformer that can be punishingly difficult; sometimes for all the wrong reasons.
And when I mention the “wrong reasons,” I’m talking about the controls. On paper, it’s a very simple affair. You can jump, double jump, dash and slide. Unfortunately, I had far too many problems getting my character to run upside down (done, in theory, by pressing up whilst pressed against a wall) and just general sloppiness. It felt like subtle movements were nearly impossible to perform, and the levels are clearly designed to be finished in one sustained run — so much so that it often feels like you’re better off restarting after losing the momentum.
Part of the issue is that the tutorial just isn’t very good. Rather than show you how chaining moves together works it just blows through the basics and leaves you to fumble about. Some critical info is also contained in the “help and options” section, such as allowing your character to fall off the edge nullifies your second jump. The game never adequately explains the differences between the four playable characters, either; in fact, the only info available is a one-word description located on the final page of the “how to play” section.
Watching some of the online speed runs is proof positive that some have mastered the controls, however, so my own struggles aren’t universal. Nonetheless, Dustforce could have done a lot more to keep players informed while also creating a tighter control scheme.
There’s a pleasing simplicity to Dustforce‘s graphics as the colorful little characters whisk across the screen, sweeping or mopping up whatever offending substance is dirtying up the area. While that’s where the action happens, it’s the lush backgrounds that allow those aspects to pop, whether you’re in front of a forest or a expansive cityscape. With the foreground and background working in harmony, you get to really appreciate the sense of movement when blitzing through a level.
Although you wouldn’t consider this to be a rhythm game in the same vein as Sound Shapes or Runner2, Dustforce absolutely makes good use of strong beats and solid tunes to (ideally) keep you focused on maintaining your momentum. It’s not a dynamic soundtrack like those other games feature, but it holds its own as part of a high quality presentation.
As a traditional platformer, Dustforce doesn’t contain any real story elements. Here, your purpose is simply to enter a level and then remove all the debris as quickly and efficiently as possible. It’s a basic concept, but like so many classic titles it isn’t about what you’re doing, it’s about how you’re doing it.
On that front the game is definitely a mixed bag. As noted, the soundtrack sort of propels the action, and these levels are designed for you to cruise through them in style. In many ways it feels too dependent on this, however, as any mistake to derail that momentum seriously hampers both the game’s flow and your post-run grades.
Each time you complete a level, Dustforce will issue two grades: one for completion (based on what percentage of the debris you collected) and one for finesse (based on speed and highest number of your combination). Hoover up every spec of filth or complete an entire run without breaking your combo and you’ll score an “S.” Mess up and you’ll watch your grade slide down anywhere from an “A” to a “D.”
It’s in this way that Dustforce differentiates itself from (and ultimately falls short of) other tough throwbacks like Super Meat Boy or ‘Splosion Man. It makes simply completing a level not good enough since many of the levels are locked, and the keys needed to access them are acquired by scoring highly in those two categories — and to be clear, simply replaying levels won’t fill the meters needed to acquire the keys; you need to improve your final grades.
That makes the game not just an exercise in quick reflexes and deftness with the oft-times dicey controls but memorization and trial and error as well. You’ll need to explore levels to locate all the debris you need to clear, then plan a route that’ll allow you to collect it all without losing your combo and finally execute the entire thing relatively error free. The downloadable speed runs from other players certainly help in this regard, but they can’t teach you the motor skills needed to pull it off.
In all fairness, when I finally nailed a level and watched the double-S pop up on the screen it was absolutely one of the most satisfying gaming experiences I’ve had in recent memory. Unfortunately, it just seems like you have to wade through a lot of frustration for those snippets of euphoria.
All told, Dustforce packs 56 levels in the single player, though I’ve yet to earn enough keys to see every single one of them. There’s also a mildly entertaining multiplayer mode, but odds are an afternoon or two with it will be more than enough and you’ll make your way back to the single-player action.
Demanding patience and precision from gamers, Dustforce is a frequently frustrating yet sporadically brilliant experience. A handful of reasonably small fixes — tighter controls, a better tutorial and a more gradual difficulty curve — would really allow its plusses to shine through all the brighter.