Where would our world be without clean freaks? Most likely it would be like my apartment when my wife goes away to visit the in-laws; dusty floors buried under empty pizza boxes, dirty dishes and shed Chihuahua hair. Clean freaks like my sweetheart are the unsung heroes that bring order to our disorderly lives, while staving off nasty odors and disease. Well, Capcom and Hitbox Team/QLOC have now made an action-platforming game in their honor, and not surprisingly, it’s a game for perfectionists.
In Dustforce, players must do battle against the insidious, never-abating enemy that is human sloth, represented in the game by four elements; unswept leaves, litter, caked dust and hazardous chemical waste. Don’t be mistaken, these normally inanimate particles, objects and liquids are no joke. Not only have they enveloped nearly the entire game world, but much like the technology of Sonic the Hedgehog’s Dr. Robotnik, they’ve also managed to possess many of its humans, animals and even lifeless objects, transforming them into dangerous monsters that can only be vanquished by a good spring cleaning. Enter the game’s titular quartet of janitor warriors, each with their own cleaning tool of choice, uniform color and unique attribute mentioned only at the back of the in-game manual (i.e. Flexibility, Speed, Agility and Power). If you can imagine that Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach and a female version of Toad were all specialized not in plumbing but instead a strange cross between professional cleaning and Chinese Wushu martial arts, then you’ll get the idea of just how whimsical the concept is. Operating out of ‘The Nexus’, an impeccably clean base of operations that doubles as the game’s central hub, the Dustforce team can access all of the world’s zones (such as ‘City’, ‘Mansion’ or ‘Laboratory’) and from there set about cleaning up each one of that zone’s individual stages – provided they can reach them in the first place. You see, as gainfully employed martial artists, the Dustforce team doesn’t mess around. Just the simple act of exploring the entire Nexus alone requires immediate mastery of the platform mechanics explained in the game’s optional (but highly recommended) ‘Tutorial’ mode, after which players will find themselves performing dazzling, gravity-defying feats such as wall running, double-jumping and air-dashing to reach doors that were once seemingly out of reach. Likewise, once inside each of the world’s zones, players will need to use the same skills to reach the entrances to many of the game’s stages; the harder the door is to reach, the more difficult the stage that awaits them behind it. And it’s behind those doors where the real danger and challenge begins.
The objective in each stage of Dustforce is the same; clean up the level and its inhabitants as quickly and completely as possible in one continuous run in order to attain high Completion and Finesse scores.
Scores are graded on a scale of ’D’ to ‘S’, with ‘S’ being ‘Perfection’, and a perfect score or combination of lower scores will award players with differently colored keys to unlock even more difficult stages. In essence, the act of cleaning is quite simple; players need only run over the areas of the level covered in debris and their chosen cleaner will automatically sweep it up, and they can use light or heavy attacks with their cleaning weapon in order to break up particularly tough ‘messes’ like dust barriers or junk monsters. As mentioned before, the game is very Sonic the Hedgehog-inspired, not only in how defeated enemies revert back to their peaceful human, animal or object forms once ‘cleaned’, but also how players automatically build up a ‘combo’ by collecting all the debris they’ve dusted up, which is represented by a number in the bottom-left corner of the screen (like Sonic’s Rings). In addition, a power meter below the combo tally also fills as the combo accumulates, and when it’s full the player can unleash a flurry of Kung-Fu-style sweeps that will instantly clean any debris or enemies in the immediate vicinity like a smart bomb, making it the perfect weapon for clearing up a difficult area quickly. On paper, these ideas read like old-school 2-D platforming heaven, and the appeal certainly shines through in actual play. Dustforce’s vibrantly clean visual design and its fluid, acrobatic heroes combine with the speed, route memorization and aforementioned mechanics of Sonic as well as the platforming action of Ninja Gaiden from the NES era to deliver a fresh new experience that feels right at home on either the PS3 or PS Vita. Regrettably, the game is likely to be almost as frustrating as it is enjoyable for most players.
[pullquote align=”right” class=”blue”]Dustforce is really a game about perfection and little else[/pullquote]This is because at its core, Dustforce really is a game about perfection and little else. Its standards are exacting, and only players with the patience, luck and perseverance to meet them will be able to finish the game. As explained earlier, some colored keys can only be attained by getting perfect grades in both Completion and Finesse scores. Without those keys, players won’t be able to access the hardest levels of the game. Most players need not worry about that however, as many of the standard or intermediate stages will have them rage-quitting for other reasons. Getting a perfect Completion score is tough, but it becomes easier once a player becomes familiar with a level, as all one needs to do is figure out where all the garbage is and make sure they clean up every bit of it. The real hair-puller is Finesse, as the only way to get an ‘S’ Finesse score is to maintain one’s combo right to the end of a level, all without getting hit by an enemy or taking more than a five-second pause between dust-up chains. This requires a player’s run to be near-flawless; no important jump, slide, or wall-run can afford to be missed, and no enemy attack can be absorbed. And while there are certainly many OCD players out there who can pull off the perfect run, Dustforce’s controls are too unreliable and inconsistent to match its strict rules. First off, core transition techniques, such as ‘jump-to-wall, run-up-wall” or ‘jump-to-ceiling, run-along-ceiling’ only work 50% of the time in practice and simply feel too loose to be trusted (regardless of whether one is using the D-pad or thumbstick), which is unacceptable when the slightest error can ruin a perfect run. Then there’s the problem with the four characters’ vaguely-described abilities, which actually bend or break the game’s strict rules. For example, the ‘Agility’ cleaner can actually triple-jump, even though the tutorial and hints provided by NPCs only state that players can double-jump, and she can also air-dash after performing a double-jump, a skill that none of the other cleaners have. As a result, the gameplay feels inconsistent from character to character, and players are forced to figure out not only their differences but also what stages best suit each one best through added trial-and-error.
Despite these problems however, the music of Dustforce kept this reviewer playing long after his patience had worn thin. The chip-tunes-derived soundtrack is simply mesmerizing. It doesn’t have a single weak note in it and can be listened to for hours on end; serving as an effective panacea for the pain I endured while attempting to clear some of the unlocked stages. In one such stage I probably impaled my chosen cleaner on electric spikes no less than 50 times in under three minutes…if not for the music and the game’s quick restarts, my PS Vita would likely be a shattered pile of circuitry on my living room floor by now. There is also an arena-style, local/online multiplayer mode where 2-4 players can fight on the side of the cleaners or a team of debris-creating nemeses, but it’s unlikely to keep most people engaged for very long.
In conclusion, Dustforce is a game that for all its old-school quaintness and new-school flair offers very little to gamers outside of those obsessed with making perfect speed runs under the most punishing of difficulties. And while there’s nothing wrong with focusing on challenge, the game still manages to hurt itself by demanding absolute perfection from players while providing neither a dependable control scheme nor the proper guidance to teach players how to achieve it. Only sadomasochists and chip-tunes fans ready to part with their $10 need apply here.