Wot I Think: Dustforce
This one cleans up
It's pretty exciting to already know one of your games of 2012, midway through January. And it's always exciting to have a game that compels you to play the same levels over and over and over and over and over, despite the fact that it's over two hours since you needed to go to bed, and your hands hurt from thumping your desk, because you have to get a bloody "S" on this level because... because you just do! That would be Dustforce.
With the engagingly silly premise of a 2D side-scrolling platform game where you play a janitor, the overall goal of Dustforce is to sweep up all the mess in a level. But forget whatever images of a game that conjures up in your mind - the dust, be it leaves, fluff or green chemical goo, is the motivation to perform some of the most rewarding platform parkour I've ever seen. The dust are the targets to hit, automatically collected as you so elegantly swoop over it through levels, skipping off walls to dart along ceilings, double-jumping between floating dust beasties who you bash to bits, and swooshing down steep hills to make spectacular jumps into seemingly unreachable gaps.
A few dozen levels are scattered around a peculiar hub of various themed areas, some open from the start, others unlocked by perfecting previous challenges, each offering its own gravity-ignoring assault course to tackle. On your first go through you'll make a few jumps, see what it expects of you, and wonder at the ceiling how you'll ever be able to finish it with your combo intact. Impossible, you'll declare, before figuring it out, and getting stuck on the next challenge.
Just played as an A-B platformer would be to wildly miss the point of Dustforce. While there are a few levels that make that task alone pretty tricky, most you'll be able to run through without too much of a struggle. Instead, the goal here is to sweep up every scrap of dust along the way. Except, actually, that's not it either. The real goal here is to get through the level, sweeping up every scrap of dust, without letting your combo drop. Combos are pretty simple - you can't let too long go since you last swept something. If you don't run over some dirt for a few seconds, the number dramatically drops out of the bottom left corner of the screen. You can keep going, and the first time through a level you probably will. But it will hurt.
Also in the mix is a further feature of collecting dust: fill the bar at the bottom of the screen and you can unleash an attack that wipes out anything in direct line of sight of your janitor. The timing of when to use these is absolutely critical to maximum success.
There are two main rewards at the end of a level. The amount of dust you collected, and the "finesse" you show as you do this. What that actually means is how well you've maintained your combo, with the top award, an "S", only being dished out if you keep it up throughout. Get every scrap of dust and you'll get the other S. And then playing as something of a tie-breaker is the time you complete it all in.
Because finish a level and you're presented with the high score chart for all Steam players for that level, and your place on it. And that means war. Even managing to awaken the high score beast (not seen since Trials 2) in some as usually uninterested as me, seeing that another journalist with review code managed to get their SS four seconds faster than me makes it impossible to go to bed. How? How did he do that? I was perfect! PERFECT!
Well, how is an easily answered question. Because brilliantly the game records the play of every player's entry on the chart, and from that table you can instantly watch their run. And oh! OH! They bounced off that wall to do that ceiling there, rather than going over there! Right then. RIGHT THEN.
Being able to see other people's techniques once you've reached the end of a level at least once is probably going to cause some consternation. Of course you can look at the top position and learn all the best tricks for a level straight away. And then copy them. And do it slightly faster. And then officially be better than them. Or maybe you can't, because a lot of those figures just before release belong to the developers, and they're bloody good at their game, unsurprisingly. And, well, as much as you can try to copy, succeeding in copying is entirely another matter.
So much of Dustforce is realising how much more you can do than you realised. Early lessons like working out how to manoeuvre from running on ceilings are liberating. And figuring out what the dash button is really for is one of many revelatory moments where suddenly the possibility for greater success opens itself up to you. Those moments send you tearing back to levels you've gotten stuck with a maddening "S,A" score on, hopefully revealing a way to ace it.
Issues? They are few, but I'm not convinced the double-jump is perfect. Once I'd realised that an obscure "double-tap" option needs to be switched off for it to work properly it was much improved, but a few too many times it seemed to fail to fire despite my not having done anything wrong. And sometimes, when playing with a controller at least, turning around in critical moments can be a little laggy. It can make the difference of which way you fire a karate chop against a dust-possessed critter, and that's beyond maddening.
Oh, and I would very much like to see a few more options mappable to a controller, and indeed the instant restart button to actually be that - currently it just pulls up the menu with "Restart" selected, which isn't helpful. A single button restart would put this in that Trackmania place of obsessive restarting mania.
Otherwise, it's sublime. It's ludicrously compelling, leaving me replaying the same opening section of the same level dozens of times in a row, as I - ever more furiously - restart it after making the same stupid mistake for the nineteen billionth time in a row. But that repetition is bearable because it's such a joy to play. Those movements are so perfect, clipping the edge of a platform such that you can fling off in the other direction, run up just enough wall to reach a floating enemy, then fight him such that you move sideways across the screen, the critter-death rewarding you with another bounce that means you can touch that ceiling and drop onto the next big slope.
It looks beautiful, the wonderfully painted backdrops gorgeous to skid your meticulously animated cleaner about. And it's packed with so many levels that becoming infuriated with one means you can run far, far away to a different zone and be infuriated there instead. Or indeed be MAJESTIC IN VICTORY, as you nail that S,S, and receive the reward key to open a new level, where the cycle begins again.
The code I reviewed from wasn't quite finished, I have to say. The finished version will have a few more levels, and hopefully will have tidied up the very scrappy menus. But since the unfinished version is one of the most bloody excellent platform games I've played in a long time (and I was playing the superb new Rayman over Christmas), it seems likely to only get better. I'll update if that's not the case. I also wanted to make sure the review was up before the blackout tomorrow, as it would be too big of a shame for this to miss coverage. Get it.
At $10, this is a must. It'll be out on Steam in the UK in about two hours.