Dustforce

words manifested by: AJ Johnson

A game by Hitbox Team for PC, Mac, Linux, PS3, Vita, and Xbox 360, originally released in 2012.
Taking a look at platformers in general, most of them are based on fairly odd premises, with mushroom-hopping plumbers rescuing princesses, anthropomorphized animals on missions to save fantasy worlds, and the occasional gravity-flipping sci-fi tale. But even amongst these, Dustforce stands out as being built upon a strange foundation, namely that of sweeping up dust and debris.


Dustforce starts the player in a hub world called the Nexus with very little direction as to where he should go or what he should do. Pressing UP allows you to enter a tutorial level, which is very much recommended before getting underway, as success is built heavily around understanding the game’s mechanics.

At your disposal are basic running and jumping moves with a variable height standard jump, as well as a wall jump, wall slide, air dash, and double jump. The player is also equipped with a light and strong attack. This may seem like little more than your average action-platformer moveset, but learning how everything works together will be required before you can progress further than the easiest levels. This is not a game where you run along a mostly flat surface with the occasional jump or attack. In Dustforce, the player is constantly on the move, and rarely on the ground.



As you move through the tutorial, you will learn now to run, jump, and double jump, as well as climb up from ledges. Soon, you’ll learn that you can run up walls, and along diagonal surfaces, and across ceilings by pressing toward them. Moreover, you can run up a wall, transition into a diagonal ceiling run, air dash across a gap, and string the whole thing together into a seamless single action, not unlike Fancy Pants Man from The Fancy Pants Adventures. And that is what this game is all about… finding the most efficient way through each level, without losing your combo.



As you sweep up dust and debris, your combo adds up in the lower left corner. Go too long between sweeps, and it will disappear. You have several seconds of leeway, and the counter begins flashing to notify you before it runs out. In the earlier levels, this gives you an opportunity to play around with the mechanics a bit, while leaving you plenty of time to move onto the next bit of sweeping. In later levels, deft use of the controls will be required to ensure that the timer never runs down.



That’s one of the things that sets Dustforce apart from most other games on the market, because your combo affects your rating, and your rating affects your progress.

In most games with rating systems, they are geared mostly toward unlockables or bonuses rather than directly impacting the player’s progress. So, you make it to the end of level 1, and level 2 opens up. Hey, you got an “A” for damage and a “C” for time. Big deal. Maybe you’ll come back and play the level later and see if you can do better. Not so in Dustforce.



At the start of the game, there are 16 levels available, 4 each across 4 themed areas, which can be played in any order (although the design of the hub world encourages players to tackle the forest levels first). Make it to the end of one level, and you get… nothing. Complete the next, also nothing. In fact, the player can complete all 16 of the unlocked levels without opening up any new content. That’s where the ranking system comes into play.

Throughout the hub world are a number of locked doors, some with silver locks, and others with gold. In order to open the lock, you need a key of the corresponding color, and in order to get a key, you need a high ranking in one of the levels. In fact, you need a perfect ranking.



At the end of each level, the player is scored on his Completion, Finesse, and Time. Completion is based on the percentage of dust cleaned up in the level. Finesse is based on the number of times the player died from touching spikes or falling off the bottom of the screen, or getting hit by enemy attacks. The player’s time does not have a letter rank, but rather offers placement in the online leaderboards, and it is measured out to the thousandth of a second.

Progress can only be gained by having a perfect run in each level, completion time notwithstanding. Cleaning just 99% of the dust will earn you an “A” ranking in Completion. For an “S”, you can’t leave even a single patch of dust untouched. Taking one hit from an enemy, or letting your combo run out once will result in an “A” ranking in Finesse. So, while time doesn’t directly impact your progress, you still need to move quickly and efficiently in order to get that perfect “S” ranking.

Getting an “S” ranking in both Completion and Finesse will grant you key. The player earns a silver key for beating the standard levels, a gold key for beating the silver-locked (harder) levels, and a red key for beating the gold-locked (hardest) levels. Get all 16 red keys, and you are treated to a super difficult level that is comprised of more spikes than solid ground, which will require the use of every trick you have learned in your travels.



As mentioned, the only thing your completion time gives you is placement on the leaderboards, and you can expect to be pretty far down on that list until you master the controls. Even if you don’t care about the leaderboards per se, they do offer one gameplay advantage: You can watch the videos of other people playing through the levels. That’s a great tool for speedrunners looking to shave some time, but it can also help you figure out how to get through a level.



If there’s a difficult jump, challenging wall run sequence, or out-of-the-way patch of dust, watching someone else complete the level can help you figure out how to get through it yourself. Sometimes it’s easy to forget about moves like air dashes when you don’t use them frequently during regular gameplay. It’s also helpful to see how to keep your combo going throughout the entire level, which is one of the game’s biggest challenges. The game has a quick restart button so you can reset the level at any time if you make a mistake.



For each bit of debris you sweep, your combo counts upward, and attacking enemies pushes it upward as well, so you can sweep-sweep-attack-sweep your way through a number of sequences. Also, destroying an enemy in midair will allow you an extra jump, so you must often build up momentum by sliding down hill, make a leap, kill an enemy in midair, and jump again to cross the gap. But killing enemies also causes them to expel bursts of debris onto the nearby walls, depending on which direction you hit them from. This can be both a blessing and a curse. Sometimes want to be careful not to knock dust into a wall you can’t readily reach, but it can also be helpful by allowing you to continue your combo a bit longer before moving on.



There’s always at least one enemy at the end of each level, and destroying it ends the level. You can attack these enemies with your basic light and heavy attacks, but most levels are paced so that you’ll have a full power meter when you reach the end, allowing you to do an attack that destroys all nearby enemies and sweeps away dust in the same range. You can, of course, use this attack during the course of the level as well to take down batches of enemies, but you’ll almost always want a full super attack in reserve for the end of the level. You certainly don’t want to succumb to an enemy attack at the end of an otherwise perfect run.



From the start of the game, the player is free to select from any of 4 playable characters, each with their own “feel”. That’s the best way to describe it since it is not explicitly stated what each of their strengths and weaknesses are, although they certainly handle differently. Many of the differences are quite subtle, including minor differences in the characters’ acceleration speed and dash distance. Jump height and attack range are a bit easier to determine, with certain characters jumping a bit higher or having a bit longer reach than others. The old man with the vacuum cleaner has the greatest jump height and a long attack range, but he is a bit slower than the others in general. The girl with the pom-pom dusters has a short attack range and short jump, but she has a triple jump to make up for the shortcoming. In the end, each character is able to complete each level, and it’s up to the player to determine which of them feels the best for their play style. Unless you’re a speedrunner, the more subtle nuances will not mean much.



Different characters may be somewhat better suited to certain environments as well (although again, this is primarily a matter of choice in terms of how each character feels). The forest levels have you cleaning up leaves across fairly open outdoor environments, breaking open patches of leaves to free woodland animals, fighting bears who have become “infected” by the leaves (until you clean them off and they fall asleep), and dealing with the occasional dart-spitting plant. The castle/cave levels are much more confined and rely on more wall jumping and quick dashes between small bits of dust. These levels can be more difficult to get a perfect Completion score because they are dark, and the dust you are cleaning is grey in color, making it easier to overlook a patch. Destroying enemies in these levels returns them to stone gargoyles or sweeping maids.



In the city, you’ll be sweeping up garbage while jumping between rooftops and leaping about to avoid bottomless pits, and you’ll also be exploring parks, sewers, and warehouses. These levels are a mix of angled surfaces and squares, requiring a mixture of high speed maneuvering and some stop-and-go cleaning around boxes and the like. Finally, there is the laboratory, in which you must clean up loads of green slime while freeing scientists and lab rats from their sludgy prisons. These levels feature lots of angles, so you can move through them quickly, but you have to be careful not to pass up a patch of slime, or accidentally send yourself sliding into a giant slime creature.



The controls and moveset available to the player go hand-in-hand with the level design. The world is clearly built around your character’s abilities, usually offering the perfect combination of set pieces to allow you to make your way through. However, in a completely open area, such as the hub world, you may find the controls somewhat stiff and cumbersome. There are moments in some of the levels as well where the player is left to tackle his sweeping duties in any order he wishes – as opposed to the more linear paths during most of the experience – and it is here that the player may struggle a bit with the controls, since the characters are not built around small precise movements, but rather constant movement and flow. When the player character is on the run, which is most of the time, then he is truly in his element, as there is nearly a 1:1 match between the environmental design and the character’s abilities. But when asked to move around on tiny ledges, drop into tight spaces, or perform stop-and-go movements, the character is not as well equipped.



In addition to the single-player levels, the game also features local multiplayer with several levels devoted to king of the hill and survival modes. The developers also have plans to release a level creator as well.




2D CRED
Dustforce was the first game developed by Hitbox team, a small 4-person independent studio located in Brisbane, Australia. The game was originally prototyped in 2010 and developed for submission into the indiePub Independent Game Developers’ Competition, where it took the $100,000 grand prize. The money was put into funding the further development of the game.

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