Welcome to the age of indie games. Thanks to advancements in design programs that allow for small team development, and increased internet speeds that make digital-only distribution a reality, more and more independently produced titles are rising through the cracks and seeing the light of day. Dustforce is an unlikely example of an indie game that garnered enough widespread popularity upon its initial PC release on Steam that it won a deal with Capcom for a release on consoles. Now that the dust has settled on its PS3 debut, does this small fish have what it takes to clean up in the big pond? Yes and no.
Yes, there’s a great deal to love about Dustforce. Beautifully developed by Hitbox Team, the presentation impressively combines fluid animations and a delightful musical score, making it pleasingly reminiscent of some of the greatest 2D platformers of all time.
It may not be for everyone. Some will undoubtedly be turned away by Dustforce’s frustratingly high level of difficulty. If you’re not a fan of challenging titles like Mega Man or Super Meat Boy, you’d best look somewhere else. The demand for timed precision and the unforgiving controls require patience of players who will need to replay segments dozens upon dozens of times with no guarantee of success. But for the diligent few willing to commit the time and effort necessary to master the controls and memorize the level design, Dustforce can be a rewarding playground, perfect for testing and showing off skills.
Gamers are put in charge of one of four uniquely skilled janitors, tasked with cleaning up dust and grime in various stages. Rather than simply completing the level, the primary focus is on the acquisition of points. The score is a combined total of the percentage of dirt collected and how long the player maintains a combo meter of uninterrupted cleaning. The combo score is measured in something called a “finesse rating” that resets if there is a break in the continuous collection of dust, or if the janitor gets hurt or killed. High scores will grant keys that can be used to unlock doors to new and increasingly challenging stages.
For those who enjoy this style of precision-platforming, Dustforce will be highly addictive. Its main hook stems from the personal desire to improve one’s skills. Even after all the stages are unlocked, the replay value is seemingly endless. As long as there’s always room for improvement, there’s always a reason to keep playing. Dustforce specifically caters to those obsessively hardcore gamers who understand that the pursuit of a perfect score is neverending.
Just like the classic 2D platformers of the past, Dustforce relies heavily on the accuracy of the controls and the player’s ability to use them. With either the left analog stick or the directional pad, players guide their acrobatic janitor along walls, across spike-filled ravines, and even upside down on ceilings. The challenge lies in knowing which moves to use and timing them precisely when needed. It’s a lot harder than it sounds. The clock is always ticking and every move becomes a factor in the final score. To further complicate things, each of the four janitors has his or her own unique abilities: speed, strength, agility and balance. Understanding the benefits of each one and selecting the best janitor for the job will greatly impact your score.
I really must stress that Dustforce is maddeningly difficult. It is unforgiving, and the margin for error is paper thin. It’s nearly impossible to succeed without an absolute control of the character. I found the controls to be so hard to manage that I even began to wonder if the problem was me or the game. Countless times, I was forced to reset levels because my janitor wouldn’t do what I wanted him to. Even after repetitively playing the tutorial, I found myself continually encountering the same problems of my character not clinging to walls or pulling off a double jump as needed. After an otherwise flawless run, you can probably imagine how spotty controls might lead to some anger-inducing situations. The game attempts to offer solutions. I tried customization options, such as turning down the sensitivity, and that helped a bit. I also discovered that I play better while using the directional pad instead of the less precise analog stick. But even with these changes there are still instances of annoyingly unresponsive controls, to the point that I had to step away from the game a few times. I’m not sure if it’s just this translation of Dustforce but I certainly found the controls to be hit or miss on the PS3.
Now that we’re on the topic, there are some other things about the PS3 transfer that are less than stellar and ultimately disappointing. For starters, the music skips. It’s unclear what exactly sets it off, but every so often the beat lags and stutters before returning to its natural pace or relooping altogether. It’s not all the time and you’ll miss it if you’re not listening, but it’s a real downer when it happens. The true crime here is that the music for Dustforce is so exceptionally brilliant. I mean, it’s really good. I’m even considering purchasing the digital album, which I hardly ever do. This old school game-inspired soundtrack from indie artist Lifeformed is one of the best I’ve heard, and I can’t help but feel cheated every time I hear it skip.
My other main criticism is that it doesn’t offer Cross-Buy with the PS Vita. That means the only way to enjoy the advertised Cross-Save and Cross-Play feature is by purchasing a separate copy for both systems. This is clearly Capcom’s way of milking the title for all it’s worth, which is unfortunate because it forces the gamers unwilling to drop an extra ten bucks to choose between the two. Honestly, after playing the Dustforce Demo on the PS Vita, I’d have to say that it is the superior choice simply due to its portability. A precision-platformer like Dustforce begs to be played on the subway, on the bus or in line at the post office, but it’s also nice to be able to kick back after work and improve the score on the TV. Curse you, Capcom, curse you for making me choose!
At its core, Dustforce is a great game. It successfully captures the feel of a classic 2D platformer in a fresh and exciting way. The presentation, along with its impressive soundtrack, is a wonderfully alluring incentive for persevering through the challenging gameplay. While the high level of difficulty may be exceedingly frustrating at times, it can be just as rewarding for those willing to put forth the time and effort. Hopefully the issues involving unresponsive PS3 controls and the skipping soundtrack can be addressed in a future patch. While we’re making wishes, maybe Capcom will also come to their senses and make the game Cross-Buy. Otherwise I suggest purchasing the title on the PS Vita as its portability makes it the better of the console options.