There’s a lot to like in Dustforce. The animations are the first thing to strike: smooth motions chaining together sprints, jumps, dashes, wall-running, and combat with panache. The music sets a great tone for the action, and often manages to be both relaxing and upbeat. It’s got a unique janitorial theme that somehow makes cleaning seem fun. The graphics are crisp and sleek. And when you get a good flow going, the game just feels good. I wanted to love this game. Unfortunately for me, Dustforce is a harsh mistress.
As you traverse the game’s several zones you’ll be sweeping up leaves in the park, confronting cobwebs in an ancient haunted mansion, tidying the town, and clearing the spills of a rather careless lab. In each level you are assigned ranks for Completion (how much of the dust has been removed from the floors, walls, and ceilings) and Finesse (how well you strung dust-busting combos together).
The overworld funnels you through the zones in a certain direction, but you can actually skip any stage you like. A few of the stages of each are unlocked from the start, but most will require keys. Since you never actually have to clear any of the stages to move on to the next zone, you can experience all the different background flavours the game offers regardless of your ability. However, this design decision comes with a glaring problem: the player is never rewarded for completing stages.
Unless, that is, they receive a perfect score. The keys necessary to experience some 70% of the content can only be acquired through flawless performances: getting the best rank for both Completion and Finesse in one run. That several stages do not have many hazards is small comfort when any missed jump, lost momentum, or broken combo renders the entire attempt meaningless. Imagine playing Guitar Hero where new songs are only unlocked by full combos.
This emphasis on perfection may exalt the platforming elite but will incense the rest of us mere mortals. Is it too much to ask that the game provide intermediary rewards for completion, and additional honours for perfection? Super Meat Boy provides a great example of my point: much of the content is locked to players who cannot rise to its significant challenge, however the game still allows the non-perfect players to progress through the Light World’s difficult-yet-manageable levels and reach a satisfying finale, independent of the far more demanding Dark World levels. Dustforce could have been a great game to a greater number of people by this one small change: a system of reward for advancement that isn’t strictly focused on the elite.
As it is, how much you like Dustforce will entirely depend on how good you are at it. That said, not loving it like I wanted can be seen as an admission of failure on my part. I don’t think I’m that bad at extreme platformers (for reference: I’ve cleared about 75% of Super Meat Boy) but I’m by no means a platforming god (for reference: I can’t clear beyond 75% of Super Meat Boy). If you count yourself among the upper echelon of the platforming pantheon, by all means get Dustforce. If you have the patience and will power to retry already-completed stages until they eventually succumb to your mastery, you have found a worthy nemesis. Otherwise, regretfully, pass.