Developer: Hitbox Team
The first half of January is usually a torturously slow time for new releases. We tend to take advantage of the languid, relaxing pace by dealing with a few Christmas stragglers and getting inordinately excited about what February and March have to offer... but a new contender has stepped into the wasteland with little in the way of pomp or circumstance.
Dustforce is an indie platformer from Hitbox Team, and it doesn't make a particularly inspiring pitch. As a limber janitor capable of astounding acts of acrobatic insanity, you'll attempt to sweep levels clear of detritus in as short a time as possible and with as much finesse as you can muster. It's not exactly the most tantalising excuse for a platformer that we've ever heard, and the premise would have felt right at home in the Mega Drive era.
But, if the inexorable and welcome proliferation of the indie scene has taught us anything, it's to expect the unexpected. Amazingly, Dustforce manages to shatter any preconceptions and defy all expectations. More amazing still, however, is that 2012 has its very first 'must buy' title.
As mentioned, the goal of each of the myriad levels is to choose a character (each of whom pack different abilities that require experimentation rather than explicit explanation) and embark on a furious orgy of cleaning. Dust, leaves and dirt clings to both surfaces and enemies, and luckily you've got the skills to get the job done. The basic gameplay is vaguely reminiscent of N+ since you'll spend a lot of time chaining wall runs, wall jumps and multiple multiple leaps together in an effort to keep your combo going - the more graceful and thorough you are, the more you'll score. Dustforce proceeds to up the ante with light attacks that allow you to maintain your momentum while cleaning enemies, heavy attacks that scatter extra dirt around the environment and the ability to cling to ceilings. The action is responsive, organic, fluid and intuitive; moreover, it's consistently thrilling.
Excellent pacing also ensures that you won't tire of what could have been a monotonous experience. New challenges, new enemies and multiple solutions for each level propel you forward and test your brainpower as well as your twitchy fingers. The bevy of abilities mean that there's never just one way to circumvent an obstacle, and working out the best routes is best likened to a puzzle game rather than a traditional platformer. Exploring the hub world and unlocking new levels becomes a compulsive joy, and one that provides exceptional value.
Right. There's no dancing around it any more. We have to mention the presentation. We've come to expect experimental and gorgeous art design from indie developers who tend to compensate for weak empirical graphics with raw imagination, and Hitbox Team have excelled themselves. Dustforce looks absolutely beautiful in motion, and more impressively, has a personality all of its own. There's none of the big retro pixels that's increasingly becoming a cliché in the genre. It's too sharp and defined to ever be mistaken for Braid's watercolour style, but too muted and subtle to ever be mistaken for one of the minimalistic crowd. Understated without being drab, crisp without being stark, Dustforce is a magnificent compromise.
The original soundtrack also deserves its own special mention. It's uplifting, soothing and catchy yet it never becomes overpowering: a genuine masterpiece of subtlety. You'll frequently lose track of it in the harder levels... but it's always there, gently dribbling into your ears and constantly reassuring you that everything is going to be alright after just one more run. Trust me, Dustforce is set to join the Bastion club of games you have to buy the soundtrack for.
You'll need all the soothing you can get, though, because the seductive presentation hides a mean streak a mile wide. Dustforce is hardcore, and not only do the obstacles and challenges demand excellence, but progressing through the levels also requires you to constantly excel. Unlocking new stages requires you to clean levels thoroughly and do so with finesse - i.e. gaining massive multipliers, not getting hit and logging speedy completion times - and the difficulty curve soon ramps up after the first simple stages. Dustforce will probably rub you the wrong way from time to time if you're easily frustrated.
Thankfully it's difficult to ever hit a brick wall. Figuratively, since you'll be running up a lot of them in the game. Replays from the world's best players are available for each level, allowing you to mug up on potential solutions, timing and ways of dealing with each particular obstacle that you might have never considered - essentially acting as in-game FAQs. Plus, aspiring to beat the best and shave seconds off of their time can become a fun metagame in itself. A little friendly competition never hurt anyone.
Speaking of friendly competition, Dustforce does offer a single multiplayer mode. A handful of local players (no online functionality, I'm afraid) can engage in a poorly-explained king of the hill gametype that, while fun in short bursts, lacks sticking power. It's not really a flaw considering that Hitbox Team were clearly concerned with crafting the best singleplayer experience possible, though more social players may come away feeling a little disappointed.
My one major bugbear with Dustforce comes down to the controls. Not because they're clunky or unresponsive (quite the opposite, in fact), but because they're grouped together into an extremely uncomfortable keyboard layout and rebinding does little to help matters. With so many commands that need to be perfectly timed down to the second, it's nigh-on impossible to find a layout that works. Luckily Dustforce also natively supports the Xbox 360 gamepad, which provides a much more intuitive way of controlling the action. Problem solved.
- Fluid, technical and thrilling platforming
- Sumptuous visuals and art design
- Killer soundtrack
- Cramped and unintuitive keyboard controls
- Frustration factor
- Forgettable local-only multiplayer (oh well)
The Short Version: Dustforce is a surprise platforming sensation and a perfect way to kick off what ought to be an exceptional gaming year. Incredible value, sumptuous presentation and fluid gameplay add up to 2012's first truly unmissable title.