Dustforce is the Hotline Miami of 2D platformers.
Originally released for PC in 2012, Hitbox Team’s Dustforce is an extremely tough 2D platformer that couples intelligent level design with momentum-based platforming. The product is a game that demands perfection, and uses a beautiful artstyle, serene indie soundtrack and a just-weird-enough concept to stop you from swearing off video games forever when you’ve been stuck on the same level for hours and it’s four in the morning.
You control one of four janitors who each have their own tool for cleaning and bashing. Their one ambition in life is cleaning up the world around them in style. That’s all the story you’re given, and I think that the game is better for it since trying to flesh the core idea out would break Hitbox’s focus on gameplay.
This focus on gameplay is deeply ingrained in Dustforce all the way down to its progression system. If you die or take too long between scrubbing sections, your combo goes away. Each area only starts out with about half of its levels unlocked. To unlock other levels, you need keys and the only way to acquire said keys is to increase completion rate on already unlocked stages. At the end of each level you’re graded on completion (how much dirt you’ve brushed away) and finesse (how long you keep your combo going). It’s a smart system because by the time you unlock the more challenging levels, you’ve had to master the ones before, improving your skills without you noticing.
Levels are broken up into themed worlds, and while all of them look great my favorite is the first. It’s a forest in the middle autumn, and instead of dirt you clean piles of leaves and remove them from forest creatures like foxes and bears. The backgrounds are detailed, and the animals have a lazy nature to them once they’re saved that calms you down when you’re ready to throw your Vita through a wall into a swimming pool full of acid from dying so many times.
A feature that’s been showing up more and more in challenging indie titles is a button dedicated to an instant restart, and its absence in Dustforce is sorely missed. I appreciate that there’s a checkpoint system in play for when you die because it helps a lot when you’re trying to learn the level. I just think a separate button to restart the stage entirely would cut down on frustration when you have to keep restarting the level you’ve been stuck on for hours.
Nailing the control scheme is difficult at first, and using the joystick to maneuver your character is very finicky. Dustforce’s tutorial level doesn’t inform you that you can use the d-pad for movement, but I tried it out of frustration with the joystick and I was surprised to find that it worked – and much better too. It all boiled down to deaths feeling like the game’s fault with the joystick and deaths at the same spots feeling like my fault with the d-pad. Other than that potentially major annoyance, the rest of the controls are spot-on.
Multiplayer is split between a mode where one time spreads dirt and the other cleans it up, all while trying to murder each other with cleaning supplies, the other is a version of king of the hill. I found it difficult to find a match, but when I finally did I wasn’t too impressed. The multiplayer doesn’t take away from the overall experience, it just doesn’t add much, if anything to it.
Whether or not Dustforce is for you centers on the question “Do you like incredibly challenging platformers?” If the answer is no, stay far away. If the answer is yes, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more rewarding experience than the one Dustforce provides. It’s not only one of the best platformers I’ve ever played, but one of my favorites of all time.