The 2D platformer has never really disappeared, but in the last two or three years this classic arcade genre has seen somewhat of a revival. Even today Nintendo, with its suite of timeless franchises, has continued to iterate in a way that explores and builds on one of the oldest formats in gaming history and so too have plenty of other development studios, both big and small.
Alongside regular doses of Super Mario, Donkey Kong, and Kirby, we’ve also seen the return of classics including Rayman and Strider, not to mention a spread of innovative 2D platformers from indie developers as well. Games such as Braid, Fez, Outland, and Thomas Was Alone have continued to re-establish the genre’s relevance long after the introduction of three-dimensional design.
Though certainly part of this new wave of games, Dustforce, from Brisbane’s Hitbox Team, doesn’t have the same level of prestige, but it’s still a sound game in concept and one that some die-hard platforming fans will absolutely fall in love with. For regular punters, however, there are some noticeable flaws that make the game somewhat unapproachable, despite its apparent excellence in other areas.
The core premise underpinning Dustforce is easy to get behind. Players step into the shoes of an acrobatic janitor, doing exactly what acrobatic janitors do best: cleaning up with a healthy dose of parkour action.
Stages are self-contained and take just a few minutes to beat, not counting restarts. There are more than fifty in total, spread across four different zones including the Laboratory, Mansion, City, and Forest. Each zone takes the form of a mini-sandbox in which players have to physically reach a entry point in order to start a level. With no linear path to follow, however, players can simply dip in and out of zones as they please.
The only obstruction to your progress is the presence of keys which, rather unsurprisingly, are used to open doors and new levels. They aren’t collectables though and need to be earned through skill alone. Each of the stages in Dustforce will grade your performance, ranging from D to the perfect “S Rank” for both completion and finesse.
To boost your completion rating, you simply need to sweep up as much refuse as you can find. Finesse, on the other hand, relies on your ability to keep the combo meter flowing. This means avoiding obstacles and enemies while all the time making sure that you swiftly navigate each jump and wall-run. It’s an interesting progression system to say the least, though it discriminates against those who can’t quite master the finicky gameplay.
As with any 2D platformer, Dustforce conforms to some of the genre’s universal conventions. There’s a clear start and end to each stages, always bridged by a gauntlet of precarious platforms, environmental hazards, and grubby-looking NPCs. Where Dustforce tries to differentiate itself is in how the control scheme works. Personally, when playing 2D platformers, I always find myself retreating to the trusty d-pad but in Dustforce the left stick seemed like the only viable option.
This is due to the degree of precision required of you when wall-running. With practice and dexterity, players can efficiently scale walls as well run across ceilings and up downward-pointing gradients. To begin with it’s actually pretty inventive but soon starts to become an obstacle when paired with the game’s fiendish level design.
To add yet another of complication, Dustforce also features a double-jump and dash mechanic, but it will come as surprise to find that these staples of the genre are rarely very responsive. This is due to the fact that neither function can be used if a players “falls” off a ledge and only when they “jump”. There is a distinction between the two, though it’s often too hard to distinguish whether you fell or indeed jumped while bounding from platform to platform at high speed.
The result is a gameplay experience that feels more trial and error than anything else. When all goes according to plan Dustforce runs with an astounding amount of fluidity and grace. One mistimed button press, however, and the whole thing comes crashing down in the most disappointing of fashions.
While there is parity between the PlayStation 3 and Vita releases, and there’s Cross-Save functionality, it has to be said that the Vita version feels slightly more challenging. On a smaller screen and with a less nimble joystick, navigating the game’s more difficult levels is even harder.
Visually, on both consoles, Hitbox has done a flawless job. Each environment, prop, and character model carries the same, consistent cartoon look and vibrant colour palette, while the Vita version makes use of the motion sensors for some fancy parallax effects. The Dustforce soundtrack is also worth a mention, adding a nostalgic yet refreshing dimension to the experience.
If you’ve gotten this far into the review, your mind has likely been made already. Dustforce may look fabulous and has some really interesting ideas but the overall execution falls somewhat short of expectation. Though still enjoyable, the fiddly controls add an unnecessary amount of challenge, barring both younger audiences and casual platformer fans.