Indie Platformer Marathon: Dustforce

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I’ve been writing about a lot of indie games lately, but most have been small, quick games that I messed around with whilst playing through something bigger, like Dishonored. This means I’ve been collecting quite a few medium- to long-length indie games that I haven’t been getting to. Looking through my disturbingly large backlog, I noticed that many of these indie games happen to be platformers. So, I decided I should just sit down and play through a whole bunch of them. How many indie platformers can I stand, before I need to play something else? We’re about to find out. First up is Dustforce, a game I am finally playing more than a year after I purchased it.

Dustforce is a game about kung fu janitors.

I was instantly intrigued the first time I saw footage of Dustforce. It’s the kind of game that makes perfect sense as soon as you see it: there’s a crazy platforming level with dust strewn across the floors, walls, and ceilings. You’ve got a broom. Clean it up! With crazy acrobatics! There are actually four playable characters, who all handle slightly differently, but all of them will run up walls, slide across ceilings, perform double-jumps, and otherwise defy gravity, cleaning everything as they go. From the footage, I was expecting a super-hard platformer, which, as longtime readers will know, I quite enjoy. But Dustforce is not a fast-paced, frantic exercise in reflexes like many super-hard platformers; this is no Super Meat Boy. It’s much slower, more methodical, even zen-like at times.

This all comes down to the controls. I was a bit confounded by them at first. With most super-hard platformers, I prefer the speed of keyboard input to that of a gamepad, but with Dustforce the controls are more complex. Every character can jump, dash (which can be done mid-air instead of a double-jump), and perform a weak or strong attack. All of these moves are crucial to success in the levels, and they require forethought and planning to be used properly — especially the attacks which have a delay before they go off. With the number of inputs, I initially opted for a gamepad and liked it a lot for the early levels. But I eventually switched back to the keyboard when I learned how critical directional input is. Specifically, the difference between holding right to cling to a wall and holding right and up to run up said wall becomes the difference between life and death in some of the harder levels, and managing that with a d-pad just didn’t cut it. I’ve read that there’s a roughly even split between keyboard and gamepad control amongst the top players, however, so you may feel differently. I ended up quite liking the keyboard controls, but I think the controls in general simply require some learning.

Playing a level in Dustforce is not just about getting to the end. Well, you could just do that, but it kind of misses the point. The levels in Dustforce are like obstacle courses. You race through them, trying to execute the perfect moves at the right times, and then you go through again and try to improve. When you complete a level, you’re given two scores: completion, which measures how much of the dust/leaves/slime/garbage you cleaned, and finesse, which measures how smoothly you did it. As you clean, you build up a combo score, and if you go too long without cleaning anything up (or even worse, get hit by an enemy or fall onto spikes) you’ll lose the combo. For a perfect finesse score, you’ll need to complete the whole level without ever losing your combo. Early on, this will be really hard, because the characters feel very slow and unwieldy. They accelerate slowly, lose their momentum easily, and otherwise feel clunky. The trick, which you will learn with some practice, is finding the right set of moves that will let your character build up and maintain speed. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll be flying through the levels, and feeling absolutely awesome while doing it.

The levels are all accessed through a hub, with four themed areas. Levels can be tackled in any order, but the easier ones must be completed in order to acquire the keys to unlock tougher ones. These early levels are designed to get players used to the methodical movement in the game. Playing them is actually quite relaxing; even at high speed the pace is perfectly manageable, and every move is purposeful rather than a mere reflex. It feels a lot like how I imagine real kung fu feels (although that’s probably just me showing my ignorance). Even the excellent soundtrack reinforces this peaceful feeling, providing a calm and beautiful aural accompaniment to the acrobatics. Upon receiving some silver keys and unlocking a few of the levels with silver locks on them, I found tougher challenges, but they never lost that feeling of calm, controlled movements. These levels certainly required several attempts, but I enjoyed them the most, taking great satisfaction in managing a perfect run.

Then I tried my first golden key level.

These levels are hard. They are equal in difficulty to, if not harder than, any other super-hard platformer I could name. Playing these levels was not relaxing. It was extremely tense. The pace is still slow and controlled, but these levels require absolutely perfect timing and execution. You must be free of distractions. You must be completely and totally focused. In fact, for some of these levels, you may despair that you will ever manage a perfect run, or indeed wonder if it’s possible at all.

Which brings me to one of the game’s best features: it records every attempt a player makes, and lets you watch anyone’s run in-game, right from the high score list. Given the focus on slowly perfecting perfect runs, this is an invaluable resource, and a genuinely good reason for the game’s Steam requirement [EDIT: Turns out you can also get the game DRM-free from the Humble Store, but I assume that an online connection is required to watch other player’s runs]. Watching the fastest runs is not always that useful, however. These players have completely mastered the game. They seem to ignore gravity, flying through the levels in a series of mid-air dashes and perfectly-timed attacks. These runs are flawless displays of finesse that I knew I could never achieve. Instead, scroll down a bit to look at the players who were slower, but still managed to snag that perfect score. You’ll see how it was done, where they jumped, where they clung to walls, when they took shortcuts. These runs also show how different characters handle the level. Like a racing driver, you’re watching the tapes, learning when to brake, when to accelerate, what line to take. And then you try again. The levels have checkpoints, so you can try a particularly tricky section over and over until you get it, but that can be slightly annoying when you’re finally attempting your flawless run and you need to enter the menu to start over any time you lose your combo. Still, it’s simply a matter of opening the menu and selecting “restart” which is relatively painless. And eventually, you’ll get it. Usually, when I finally managed a perfect run on one of the tougher levels, I realized my entire body had tensed up as I devoted my full attention to the sequence of challenges before me. These runs are not relaxing, no. But they are very satisfying.

I did, finally, manage a perfect run on every level, but there were several points at which I didn’t think I’d ever manage it. In some playing sessions I only achieved a perfect score on a single level, playing it countless times. If you like the feeling of surmounting seemingly impossible obstacles, you will enjoy Dustforce, which will provide that feeling several times over. But the process can often be frustrating. Oh, and my reward for getting perfect ratings on everything? More levels. Even harder ones. I tried them out a little, but eventually decided I couldn’t be bothered to attempt mastering them. For challenge-seekers and completionists, though, Dustforce has plenty to offer.

I don’t mean to sound negative here, especially since every level in the game is optional. Players who won’t relish the stiff challenges of the toughest levels are free to ignore them. The base levels and silver key levels are great fun, and I still enjoyed the difficult ones, frustrations aside. And I haven’t even mentioned the lovely art style. Each character features beautiful 2D animation, and the levels themselves are bright, colorful, and a joy to move through. I also loved the design of the enemies, which, naturally, must be cleaned rather than killed. In the mansion, a dusty suit of armor may come alive to attack you, reverting to its inanimate state after a few good whacks of your broom. In the forest, floating balls of leaves turn into little squirrels when cleaned, and ferocious bears yawn and go to sleep once their coating of leaves is removed. And since cleaning an enemy while in mid-air will provide you with another double-jump, the enemies are often key elements of the levels, providing the means for impossible mid-air maneuvering. And of course, there’s the always-satisfying super-attack, which can be triggered once you’ve done enough cleaning. This sends your character flying around the screen, cleaning everything in view, and it looks spectacular. Certain clusters of enemies are clearly designed for this special attack, often at the end of a level, which provides an additional slow-motion effect afterwards just to make you feel extra awesome.

I should mention that, initially, I was worried that character selection would be more important than it was. While each character is different, most differences are subtle, with the exception of the purple kid who has a triple-jump and attacks much faster than the others. There was only one level (“Hideout”, which, if not the hardest level in the game, was certainly the most daunting) that seemed to strongly favor the blue guy with the broom over any other character. But the videos proved that it’s indeed possible with all of them, even if I don’t think I could replicate it. For the most part, however, I tended to use one of the characters for each of the four areas. It didn’t feel right to have anyone other than the green guy with the vacuum cleaner clean up the green goo in the laboratory, for instance, and I initially thought the red girl had a rake, perfect for the leaves in the forest. Turns out she actually just has a different kind of broom, but it’s still a kind of broom that could be used outdoors to sweep leaves. In the end, though, players are free to handle the characters however they want, switching for each individual level or even just finding one they like and sticking with that character for the whole game. The top players on the leaderboards are often experts at a character of choice.

Dustforce also comes with a level editor and a multiplayer mode, but I didn’t try either of them. Still, they serve to add even more content to what is already a hefty offering, taking me upwards of 20 hours just with the single-player levels. And I could add many more hours to that if I tried to master the bonus levels at the end. This makes Dustforce a great value, and one I can wholeheartedly recommend. Just be warned that if you are stubborn about completing every level, you may find yourself frustrated by the difficulty of the tougher ones. But you’ll feel fantastic when you pull them off.

Point yourself here to check it out. And as the intro to each level says, “3… 2… 1… Let’s Dust!”

EDIT: The Indie Platformer Marathon is now complete! See all the posts here.

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