Saying that a game is “hard” is almost losing its meaning. Following the likes of Super Meat Boy and Dark Souls, hardcore is the new core. Once more in gaming, it is the focused, tight-lipped dedication to perfection that provides much of the enjoyment. Certainly, there are differing interpretations of “hard” (we live in a world where Mario Kart needs an official play guide), but particular titles do stand out as being fundamentally accepted as (again, that overused term) hardcore. After the first ten minutes with Dustforce, it becomes apparent that it belongs right up there with Super Meat Boy, Trials HD, N+ and Trackmania – all easy to play but hard to master.
The easy to play part only really extends to the first few levels. Apart from a brief tutorial, there is very little in the way of guidance. You find yourself in some kind of platforming overworld, with doors which lead to other levels. However, unlocking those levels comes down to cracking your knuckles and perfecting each of the stages that you do have access to. Only when you’ve gained a perfect score will you be rewarded with a key to unlock another. Trust us, you’ll be playing those first four levels a lot.
The first thing you need to decide is whether you’re a keyboard or controller person. Dustforce allows custom mapping of keys and while this reviewer leans towards the latter, it’s only on keyboard that you’re likely to get anywhere near the top 4000 or so leader scores. Whilst conceptually simple – you are an agile janitor ninja with a hatred for all things dirty – the available move set encompasses quite a few options, all of which must be memorised to rote muscle twitches in order to do well.
Dustforce tells you very little about its secrets. It doesn’t, for instance, let you know whether your janitor choice (there are four to choose from) has any major impact on certain levels. Your choice does though, and this is discovered once you start watching the world leaderboard replays of each stage. It also leaves you free to discover what the hell multiplayer is about, as well as the fact that the only way to unlock any new levels is to get two perfect “S” scores on each level.
“Phoar,” you say, puffing your gamer chest, “easy as!” It is far from it. Not only do you need a super tight completion time, but also as close to 100% ‘clean’ run as possible (we swear we’ve watched videos where they leave an enemy behind). Only with great timing and finesse will those two S rankings be assigned, as well as a key to unlock another, more difficult stage.
A clean run means sweeping away all of the dirt lines in a level and defeating the corrupted enemies. Finesse is related to your combo score, which is maintained by staying in the air – when you initiate attacks your double jump resets, resulting in some spectacular possibilities if you’re good enough – and not getting hit by enemies.
As your combo level increases, you build up a super attack, which can be used strategically to take out multiple enemies at once. Most levels are designed so that the very last area will house three or more of these, resulting in a slow motion ending. Levels are also designed to confound, with lines of dirt positioned in places that seem impossible to reach or very difficult to factor into a combo run.
Dustforce has a lot in common with Mirror’s Edge, where the focus outside the single player narrative was to study the speed runs of other players and then copy them, discovering your own embellishments as you gain skill and confidence. There’s also the ghost of Tony Hawk, discovering 2D combo runs that require the full extension of each character’s move set.
We can’t emphasise enough the importance of studying those replays. Perusing the top five times of each level will give you a decent idea of how to approach a level that has stymied you, even if it still seems impossible. The subtle differences between the janitors become apparent over time too, with some characters leaning towards speed, agility or attack.
Dustforce looks great, with detailed levels full of sharp, cartoon like graphics, the janitors moving with hand-drawn over-exaggeration. In terms of gameplay, this can sometimes be an issue, as the fluidity of the animation makes it difficult to time your directional input. Direction controls are confined to four keys, with characters sometimes stopping dead at a vertical wall because you failed to press up at the right moment. In a game which requires perfection, such stuff-ups almost always require a restart. Similarly, with so much going on during the more intense levels, it’s easy to lose track of how many jumps you’ve enacted or whether the dash is available. Wall sticking is another annoyance that can fan fury during an almost perfect run.
It’s tempting to blame the player for not being good enough, but the truth is that Dustforce can be too difficult for its own good. The stringent requirements for progress means that some players will get jacked off and never persist. Given the low cost of the game, that’s probably not a huge deal, but surely it wouldn’t be too soft to award a key for an A run or getting just one S rating.
Whether that separates the noobs from the pros is up to each player. If you’re the kind that relishes a challenge and has understanding neighbours (for when you swear loudly), Dustforce is a low cost yet deep title that can keep you mercilessly addicted for hours. Watching replays in awe is an addiction all in itself and the local multiplayer options are worthwhile if you regularly gather a few bodies around the PC. There’s also a promised level editor coming, which bodes well for the game’s longevity. With no real plot to speak of - the game is narrowly focused on level ranking - and characters that don’t speak, any depth to be found comes from the persistence of the player. Now, if you’ll excuse us, we have some dusting to do.