In a day and age when game companies are more eager to ensure that the player sees all a game’s content, rather than be challenged by it, indie developer Hitbox Team presents Dustforce. Its premise of acrobatic janitors versus the forces of dust and debris is ridiculous, barely managing to tie together a series of levels that demand complete mastery to overcome. Only the strongest of will can hope to see their way to the end of this game.
Aside from the basic understanding that you are off to fight dust, there are no other plot details. You are a man/woman/kid/senior equipped with the necessary skills to clean. You are plopped in front of a door leading to a tutorial level and left to your own devices. There are no cinematics to provide context. There are levels that are meant to be completed, so go out and complete them.
The levels within the game, each averaging about two minutes in length, are accessible through doors spread throughout a central hub. At first only an overgrown forest area appears to be available, but that’s not entirely true. By traveling through you’ll find a path that will take you around a castle area, past a city and through a laboratory. Along the way you’ll have the ability of unlocking a path from the central nexus to the outlying regions, and from there you can access the levels at whichever order you please.
At first only sixteen levels will be available to you, four levels from each environment. There are a total of twelve levels per region, each themed based on the region they’re found in. Overgrown forests and caves give way to castles laden with gargoyles and towers. City streets open up to dangerous scaffolding, and then from there move onto laboratories filled with loose wiring and green goo. The term dust is taken loosely and translated to something more akin to trash or debris, and it’s your job to clean it up.
The game functions similarly to something like a more artistic N+ or like a less sadistic version of Super Meat Boy. It’s a platformer that requires fast reflexes if you expect to make it through. On top of the expected abilities of wall jumping and running, Dustforce adds ceiling running into the mix, along with an attack function to strike the debris off of the games various inhabitants. These, combined with general platforming abilities, turn the game almost into a race. It creates pathways that would not exist in any other. When Mario takes to running across the ceiling, it’s because gravity was reversed. When the characters of Dustforce go hopping from ceiling to ceiling, it’s an average day.
At the end of every level you are judged based on how well you performed. There are two rankings that matter: one for completion and one for finesse. Completion is nothing more then ensuring not a single spot of debris still exists within the level. Finesse is a little trickier and deals with the combo multiplier, of which rises with every spot of debris you clear. In order to achieve a perfect score with Finesse is you have to maintain the combo multiplier for the entire stage. Take too long, get hit by an enemy or die and you’ll see your combo multiplier drop back to zero, and the quest for that Double-S will require a restart.
Succeed, however, and you will be rewarded with a key. That’s how the level progression works: beat an easy level perfectly, and receive a key for a medium level. Beat a medium and receive a key for a hard. Until then the content is locked away. It’s the kind of thing that takes a two minute level and makes it twenty minutes, and that’s just talking about the trickier easy levels. This doesn’t mention the hard levels that take their two minutes and make them into hours.
It’s also the kind of thing that almost turns playing the game into masochism. Checkpoints must be turned off, as they will prevent you from achieving that perfect score. You can practice all you want, but when it comes to the real thing, the best manner to play and expect to progress is from the beginning of the level every time.
And so you just have to push on. Every single split-second matters. Every jump counts. A pathway has been laid out for you, but it’s maddening in its logic, frustrating in its expectations. A bottomless pit is set before you, and the only manner of crossing it is by deftly running across the ceiling, falling and then leaping back up to another ceiling. The physics are twisted, but consistent, and many failures lay behind you to mark your attempts. But you don’t stop. You push on.
And then, against all odds, you might succeed. The farther along you get, though, the more likely you won’t.
Eight out of ten