Reviewed on Sony PlayStation 3Also available on Microsoft Xbox 360, PC and Sony PS Vita
As far as escapism goes, you probably wouldn't consider a game about a group of janitors cleaning dirt-strewn levels to be high on your backloggery list. Sweep-em-ups, you'd reason, would likely sit in the same unexciting genre silo as cooking simulators and pet management titles. Thank goodness for Dustforce, then, reminding us that expectations can be challenged almost as much as player ability, with a tough offering which rewards and infuriates in equal measure.
A port of the 2012 PC version, Capcom have left the original experience pretty much intact, for better or worse. The basic premise sees you taking control of a member of the aforementioned cleaning team and traversing a series of levels over various environments - forest, castle, city, and so on - in order to remove dust, leaves, and other rubbish. Cleaning a level is as simple as running over the unclean area, and each bit of dirt you remove increments your combo meter. To make things trickier, the rubbish is potent enough to have animated various items and creatures throughout the levels, in a similar manner to the stinking, pulsing mass found under the fridge of most student houses. They serve to hinder your progress and potentially break the combo chain you've built up until that point, unless you smash them with your cleaning implement. This will return them to their normal form and potentially create "bonus" dirt for you to clean up. Fill your meter and you'll be granted a special attack - essentially a smart bomb - which removes all dirt within a certain radius.
Once you reach the end of a level you'll be graded on your performance based on Finesse and Completion; the former marks you on your ability to survive the level without losing your combo, whilst the latter awards a grade based on how much dust you've swept away. Sound simple? Think again. Dustforce is an exceptionally challenging game, relying on the same kind of crazy reflexes found in similar twitch titles like Super Meat Boy and OlliOlli. You can make your way through a level in military fashion, dutifully cleaning each floor, wall and creature to hit that S grade for Completion, but you will still end up with a D grade for Finesse. Why? Because Dustforce requires style. Each level is laid out in painstakingly precise fashion, allowing you to sweep between dirty patches by sliding down ramps, bouncing off walls, and using your attacks to gain further height to your jumps all the way to the end. Combining all of these tricks requires skill, patience and an abundance of muscle memory. Take too long between dusty areas, and your combo will reset to zero; the only way to get that coveted S grade is to complete the level without losing it at any point.
This is where the real challenge kicks in, and where you find out if Dustforce really is a game for you. The tutorial is practically useless in teaching you anything other than the very basics, so the learning curve is akin to being asked to clean a 4x4 with a toothbrush. Depending on your character choice, you'll be armed with a broom, vacuum cleaner or mitts and also be granted slight differences to your abilities. However, other than being given cryptic labels such as “flexibility”, or “power”, finding out how each character performs in any given level is very much a trial and error process. This is a shame, as the game is tough enough without the need for you to try and fathom the almost indiscernible differences between the protagonists.
Levels are simply a set of doors dotted around a hub. Some of them are locked, and good performance in the unlocked levels will grant you keys to access these much harder challenges. However, the level hubs can be tricky to navigate themselves, and the doors don’t provide any clue to the level’s difficulty. To add further annoyance, the hub screens don’t allow you the option to change the character you want to play with. Instead, you will need to pick a level, choose a character to play that particular level with, then quit and return to the hub again as your chosen character in order to reach your original goal. Like the lack of character stats, it’s a needless oversight, but not a game-breaker. Checkpoints are saved throughout which are convenient if you just want to finish the level, but time attack players aiming for that perfect grade will prefer to just restart.
The aim is always to find the fastest route through the level, and when you string together flowing moves by clinging to walls and ceilings, battering enemies to allow you access to higher platforms and looping-the-loop to clean remote patches of dust, the result is a level of soothing catharsis rarely seen in gaming, let alone an indie platformer. Gameplay is perfectly complemented by a hypnotic, almost ethereal soundtrack which serves the dual purposes of providing a perfect backdrop to your cleaning, and reducing your stress levels when you need it the most - normally after failing to make a jump for the eightieth time. The chiptune-inspired beats are one of the highlights of Dustforce, and the soundtrack is perfectly capable of standing on its own as an essential purchase.
Multiplayer is present and has moved online from the previously local-only PC version, but it is even vaguer than the main game in terms of goals. Survival mode sees you in a Super Smash Bros.-style 4v4 brawl between janitors and creatures, whilst King of the Hill hosts a slightly more strategic challenge, where the cleaning team tries to sweep up the dirt whilst the opponents aim to blanket the level in more of it. Neither mode is particularly enthralling, and we appeared to be unable to actually find any online games to join, instead resorting to hosting our own games and waiting for people to show up. It’s unlikely that most players will linger on the multiplayer for too long since the main challenges lie in the leaderboards for each level, taunting you with your failure to complete them with high enough grades, and offering a ridiculous amount of replay value as you try to improve your score. In an inspired decision, you can also view the replays of other players on the leaderboard. This not only allows you to gawp in slack-jawed amazement at some of the incredible feats pulled off by the leaders, but also provides you with an insight into how a level should be tackled. It’s a neat way of guiding you through the trickier parts of each world (of which there are plenty), and acts as a kind of player-created tutorial system to make up for the shortfall in the game’s own offering.
The biggest barrier to the success of Dustforce unfortunately centres around the responsiveness of the controls. It often feels like there is a lag between your inputs and the desired on-screen effect, and whilst that lag may be a matter of milliseconds it’s enough to cause frustration, especially if you’ve built up a significant combo to the point where your jump or dash fails to register. This delay carries through to other aspects of the game including audio skipping and - in the very worst cases - actual pauses during gameplay. In cases like this we’d probably recommend getting it on Vita rather than PS3, but there have been reports of even worse lag on that platform. These hiccups take the sheen off the otherwise endearing presentation. Whether you enjoy Dustforce or not will strongly hinge on your affinity for time attack titles, as this is essentially the core element of the gameplay. You’ll be replaying levels over and over to try and better your score and push up the leaderboards, and its casual nature make it a perfect title for dipping into. If you’re looking for something with that “just one more go” mentality and are willing to overlook its flaws, then grab a broom and be prepared to get swept away.