Dustforce

Developed in Australia by Hitbox Team
Distributed by Valve via Steam
Released in 2012 for the PC and Mac

I’ve got to hand it to Hitbox Team: they sure did a good job of picking a name for themselves. The term they’ve chosen to be their namesake undoubtedly has a certain whiz-bang appeal to those who don’t understand its meaning, and yet at the same time it serves as a knowing wink to those who do, an upfront assurance that they “get it”. The irony of it, though, is that like Dustforce, their only release to date, its sole claim to credibility is a sufficient understanding of the driest basics of their craft. While the game takes several steps beyond the suffocating conceptual boundaries of its nearest cousin, Super Meat Boy, they are not nearly enough to make the experience worthwhile.

As I’ve implied by relating it to Team Meat’s opus, Dustforce‘s central conceit is drab and simplistic: it is a platformer focused on input precision and fast level completion. And by “focused”, I mean “stripped down due to the developer’s likely inability to handle a more feature-rich game”. At the outset, following a common design pattern, the game presents the player with a central Nexus area, essentially a level select screen extended into a somewhat explorable overworld. The area is divided into an overarching hub, with access to a playable tutorial and a level editor, and several thematic zones that each contain the game’s levels proper.

Two problems immediately become apparent. The first is that the game’s structure is open-ended to a fault. Its layout gives absolutely no indication of where the player should begin and what their ultimate goal is. The only kind of gating mechanism present is that some levels in every area are locked, and accessing them requires one of two different types of keys, which can be earned by completing the open levels with high ratings. The vague, sprawling layout kills any sense of progress with no apparent flipside benefit, which is crucial considering that, as we will soon see, this is not Dustforce‘s only failure to provide any sort of draw for the player.

Which leads to the second of its initial problems: the game’s aesthetics, while conceptually of the aforementioned whiz-bang variety, stumble in a number of important aspects. The separate game worlds that the levels take place in are differentiated almost exclusively by thematic variations of background textures and what amounts to re-skins of the same basic enemy types. It doesn’t help that these themes are as bland as they come in both concept and execution—a forest, a city, a laboratory, a mansion, each completely devoid of the artistic finesse necessary to transform a generic archetype into a lively, memorable environment. What little panache the character animations offer is washed away by a morbidly anemic, grating electronica soundtrack that likely wouldn’t seem out of place in an old age simulator (hold on, hasn’t that already been made by one of these indie artistes?).

Bear in mind that even if these broad faults do not seem like fatal blows to the game’s worth, they become drastically more pronounced once the game gets going and the player is left gasping for any kind of motivation to keep playing. The best way to describe how Dustforce plays is to take one of the numerous quality platformer games that offer a dedicated “time attack” mode as an added value feature (or at least time the player’s performance in each level to offer additional incentive to master the game), and imagine it being separated and released without the base game providing the brunt of its content.

The raw essentials are all there: the four playable characters have broad sets of moves—much broader than those available in Super Meat Boy. They include running on walls and ceilings, as well as a couple of different attacks, although there’s not much more to interactions with enemies than using them as temporary moving platforms, as successive hits allow the character to stay in the air for a short time.

The one novelty the game offers is tied to its Xtreme Janitorz theme: the levels are sprinkled with detritus appropriate to the setting (leaves in the forest, slime in the laboratory, etc.) that forms the basis of what is essentially an extended collection mechanic. As the player’s character passes over dirt-covered walls, the gunk is swept away, which means that it functions as an implicit guideline for how the level should be approached. A perfect score is impossible unless all the dust in the level is swept, which includes defeating enemies (benign creatures that are, Sonic the Hedgehog-style, transformed by a vile substance that is eliminated by way of frantic sweeping), so the flow of play consists mainly of 1) locating the enemies and patches of dust and 2) finding the shortest route to pass over them.

This sounds fine in theory, but where it breaks down can be described in the simplest of terms: nothing cool ever happens in this game. More precisely, the mechanics do not accommodate eventful gameplay; the entirety of Dustforce is designed around practicing a repetitious routine, punctuated by occasional moments of tedious “difficulty” where the game throws in junctions that are particularly demanding in terms of exact input. These fail to be entertaining because rather than providing an immersive challenge, they shift all focus from using the character’s abilities as a resource to work around obstacles to just manipulating the controls themselves until they match what is necessary to pass the obstacle. After the trial and error process is complete (which only sets the player back a few seconds per “death” via one of the multiple checkpoints in each level) what’s left is rote inclusion of the newly learned sequence of moves into the ongoing routine.

This is the point where all of Dustforce‘s accumulated faults stack up to deliver the killing blow. The game is downright depressing in its sheer lack of capacity for eliciting any kind of enthusiasm. A charitable description would be that it’s like a “platform racing game”, except that good racing games offer far more immediate satisfaction in controlling the vehicle, through responsive physics, attractive visuals, or special variables (like car upgrades or power-ups), not to mention interaction with other, unpredictable racers on the same course. It’s not that speed runs are inherently a flawed gameplay concept—certainly mastering a character’s movement can make for a proper challenge—it’s that playing against the timer presumes a degree of immediate appeal that is simply not present in Dustforce, and the only other option it leaves is simply aiming to play the stages to completion regardless of efficiency, which is clunky, trivially easy, and horrendously boring.

I suppose I could say that there is a contingent of players who will find some legitimate appeal in the style of play Dustforce accommodates. But then I’d have to ask: why bother? What purpose is there to playing a game that willfully ignores the countless precedents for where its own design could be taken further? Why be content with its tepid art direction when boundaries for artistic achievement in the medium are being pushed all the time? I can think of no good reason, and I suspect whatever proponents this subgenre might have would fail to provide me with one. Platform games have a rich and varied history. Direct your precious attention to a high quality title you’ve missed instead.

★★