Dustforce Review: Cleaning in motion
The question, whenever you talk about Dustforce, is “Is it Super Meat Boy hard?” Super Meat Boy has become the gold standard for difficulty in platformers, so much so that everything has to be compared to it. For instance, I would say that VVVVVV is probably half a Super Meat Boy except for the nigh-impossible bonus in Vidi, Vini, Vici. I Wanna Be the Guy is four Super Meat Boys in difficulty, at least, though Super Meat Boy has an I Wanna Be the Guy level.
Dustforce doesn’t rank on this scale, though. It’s a flawed comparison. Those games encourage survival, while Dustforce encourages perfection.
The central premise of Dustforce places you as a member of a cleaning super team tasked with cleaning up some filthy, terrifying areas. Imagine scaling a sheer cliff face, wiping dust from spiked platforms, and you’re there. Or running through a lab where sentient filth has turned office supplies into aggressive balls of slop. You’ve got to clean all this up.
You accomplish this via the most utterly gorgeous 2-D parkour moves I’ve seen in a video game. The animations are an absolute joy. Controlling them takes some getting used to, and even after a few hours of play I still, sometimes, feel like my character’s covered in petroleum jelly, but the movement looks and feels so nice and weighty that I’m willing to forgive it. All the characters play remarkably differently (there are four), but I’ve fallen for the red cheeked, redheaded janitor: her heavy jumps, her deliberate motions, and her punchy attacks.
In fact, the attack mechanic: it’s brilliant. It is the heftiest I’ve ever seen in a game. Sequeces like double jumping, whacking an enemy five times until a raccoon falls out, then jumping again, running on a ceiling, dashing to another ceiling, and landing on a platform feel incredible It’s slippery but it’s so heavy, and like Super Meat Boy one could run around the world for hours and not get tired, obstacles or no.
The world’s attractive, too. The “menu” is done with a fairly sizable overworld peppered with doors which take you to levels: forest, mansion, city, or laboratory in theme. They all look gorgeous, and are helped by a beautiful, if a little repetitive, soundtrack that sounds modern retro. It’s rare that I stop and marvel at graphics, but I’ve got to do so here: this game is beautiful.
And it is impossible, but not in a way you’re particularly used to. Dustforce is about the moment; it takes that moment and repeats it over and over again until you’ve gotten it just right, until you no longer see the wall, just the dirt beyond it. It’s not enough just to survive. You need perfection. It is a very Zen platformer.
You see, you can power through the regular levels of Dustforce in about an hour and a half if you’re proficient at platformers. There’s sixteen basic levels, and none of them are too taxing. But, as you travel around the central hub you’ll realize there are more levels, locked levels. There’s sixteen locked with silver locks, sixteen locked with gold locks. If you are a normal human being you will beat all the normal levels, go up to one of the game’s books (which serve to expedite the level selection process) and you’ll see thirty two levels you haven’t played. You’ll wonder how the hell you unlock them.
You have to be perfect. That’s how you do it. To unlock a silver key level, you have to 100% (get both S ranks) a normal level. To unlock a gold key level, you have to 100% a silver key level.
If you’re anything like me, you didn’t even double S the tutorial when you first started playing. Getting the double S on the first level in the game took me three tries; on the second level it took twenty solid tries filled with the most vile expletives I could come up with.
But there’s a zen to it, after a while. You stop seeing obstacles, and all you see are pathways through the level. You begin to understand the soporific background music, the gentle shades of the color palette: the game is designed to relax you, to let you focus and conquer difficult tasks. It creates a relaxing trial and error loop eventually paid off by waves of relief and success, and when you get there you’ll throw yourself back into the loop happily, ready to unlock more new sights to see.
I’ll be honest with you: I haven’t seen some of the gold star rooms. Getting double S in the silver key rooms is incredibly challenging, demanding sharp, consistent play for minutes at a time. But I know I have it in me, and I know that if I try hard enough those elusive golden keys are within reach. I know it because Dustforce has put me in that frame of mind, that happy, zen space where I know everything will be alright if I just clean up my act.