There’s a word for those among the videogaming hardcore that claim platforming died a death in the late-90’s, and that word is idiots. Sure enough we might only have a new Mario every couple of years and big-budget mascots might have gone the way of the dodo, but shunning the retail shelves in favour of digital downloads reveals a thriving scene. With the likes of Super Meat Boy, N+ and ‘Splosion Man, they lead a varied and innovative charge for your frustration and satisfaction dollars.
DustForce slots in nicely amongst those peers, with a similarly stylised world and concept looped around a quick and devilishly difficult suite of levels. You’ll take the role of one of four custodians (complete with broom), and you’re tasked with sweeping away the dust and grime from a sequence of platforming sections that challenge (and in most cases require) you to be perfect.
There are two scoring mechanics in operation here; the most straight-forward of which is clearing away all of the dust and leaves from the stage. Anything you touch immediately dissipates, and a light and heavy attack button sweeps the rest away before the power of your broom. Various enemy creatures might need a few additional stabs before they’ll give up the filth, but, by en large, hitting an ‘S’ rank for cleaning the world isn’t a tough task – thanks to some wonderfully responsive and relatively simple controls.
Speaking of those controls for a second, DustForce takes a nice hybrid approach between the responsive nature of a Meat Boy and the slidey, more balletic likes of ‘Splosion Man or even a Strider if we’re going old-school. Input is limited to directions for movement, a double-jump (which can be extended indefinitely by striking opponents mid-air), two attack buttons and a dash. It’s not difficult to get to grips with by any means, but your skills with those basic building blocks are taxed to the maximum by the second scoring mechanic, aptly labelled ‘finesse’.
This is where the real heart of the game lies. Not only does developer Hitbox demand that you clear everything on any given stage, but they also require that you do it with style. A combo meter will tick upwards whilst you’re clearing away the debris, but hang around too often or get hit a single time and it’ll crash back down, ruining any chance of completing the level with a golden rank. For once, it’s not just the draw of the leaderboards that’ll keep people replaying those sequences in the hope of maxing out a score either, as later stages can only be accessed once you earn keys granted by perfecting scores on earlier levels. It’s teeth-gnashingly difficult and demands absolute concentration, but much like Trials HD, you’ll probably keep hitting that retry button for another quick dose of punishment.
And even if the masochism gets too much at times, at least during those moments of keyboard-smashing frustration you’ll have something incredibly pretty to gaze upon. Unlike the hardened edges and pulse-quickening audio-visuals of the more sadistic peers in this genre, DustForce is a soft-pastel vector playground with an enchanting soundtrack. The effect of those (occasionally busy) visuals is as calming as can be expected, and the juxtaposition with the difficulty level trades off well in this instance. After all, how long can you stay mad at a game as pretty as this? There might be a life lesson in there somewhere, but I’d rather ignore it for now.
If you get the chance, spending a half hour running through the initial couple of levels and exploring the hub world will likely be enough to enchant you in for the medium-to-long haul in the DustForce universe, and thanks to viewable replays for every entry on the leaderboard, there’s even a small concession to make the challenge somewhat more bearable. If you’ve got a friend in the same room then there are a couple of local multiplayer variants to try out once you’ve plumbed the 40+ stages offered up in singleplayer, but sadly no online play to speak of.
It’s a fine product that can claim even a near swipe at the heavyweight challengers in this genre though, and so the team at Hitbox needs to be congratulated for coming so close to dethroning them. There’s a zen-like feeling of wonder on reaching a double ‘S’ rank for a tough stage that’s seen you beating your head against a wall for the last half an hour, and for many of you out there, that’s enough recommendation alone.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to clean my floor.