A Fighting Game Platformer?
I'll preface this review by saying this: I'm not great at this game, I haven't S+ ranked a gold level, or even started much of chapter 2, but I felt a review of this game needed to get out as fast as possible simply because this is an extremely unique game and creates a feeling that I rarely experience with a videogame. This game encapsulates the speed of Sonic with the fidelity of a fighting game to produce something truly magical.
Dustforce allows the player to choose from 4 unique characters, these characters provide a different experience and perspective for each level as they each possess a special characteristic, like Dustkid's triple jump, or Dustworth's high jump. However, there is almost no narrative in the start of the game, and you're left relatively confused as to how your 'Dustforce' got to this place, or what you're doing here. There are some people that give you tips and advice, but as to the narrative or characterization of the main cast, there doesn't seem to be any.
But, the main draw of platformers are rarely the plot or characterization, it's the awesome things you manage to pull off. In Super Mario Bros., you get to jump on a few heads while using various power-ups to get through the level. In Sonic, you use speed and the environment to boost through the level and use spin attacks to rip through enemies. It's also a very similar situation in Dustforce, no matter what character you play, you're trying to get the best score possible.
Gameplay in Dustforce is simple on the surface, you have a light and heavy attack, a double/triple jump, a dash and a special AOE attack that clears most of the screen. However, it becomes clear that there is much, much more to it than that. Already, in the first chapter, there are levels that will completely stump you and leave you confused and sad that a game will be this challenging in the first 10 minutes. Thankfully, the game features both a quick reload button as well as a robust replay system coupled with their leaderboards.
But, there were many a time when I saw myself mashing the reload button only to jump to my death seconds later - there is only so much you can do by yourself. The game and the Hitbox Team, the developers, understand this dilemma, and with the replay system, you can see the best players duke it out for the best score and time and watch their techniques as they speed through the same level you spent 20 minutes frustratingly dying over. This feature, aside from the gameplay, is probably the best thing about this game as it really extends the lifeline and opens what could have been a very limited and angry experience. Instead of throwing out your keyboard/gamepad/arcade stick, you can now watch top level replays a few times and watch how people that are actually good at this game deal with specific sections of the level.
Speaking of watching the replays, the way that you access it is also immensely convenient and deliberately so. After every completed level, no matter your score, you can access the leaderboard and check out how you fared with the world as well as your Steam friends list. From there you can also see a user's best run on that level based on either Score, or Time. Score is the default measurement as that is the most straightforward way to play the game, while Time provides an unconventional perspective on the level as players throw caution to the wind and simply try to get the best time regardless of 'Finesse' or 'Completion'.
Finesse and Completion are the two things that are prioritized in Score, and they are measurements that are very straightforward. Completion is, well, how much of the level you've completed. To get a S rank for Completion, you have to clean every nook and cranny that is plagued with leaves or dust as well as clean any animals or statues that managed to get themselves caught in it. Finesse is a more complex system, as it is calculated with your combo counter, or rather, how you must keep your combo going from start to finish. This is where the game breaks a tiny bit - because you don't want to break your combo, if you miss a bit of leaves in a long stretch, you have to forgo your momentum and grab that small speck, else you risk losing your S rank for Completion. This is a problem that can be attributed to both the game and the player, of course, as it is the player that had to mis-time a jump or a button press to miss that small area of dust, but it's also the game's fault as because of the aesthetic, it is difficult to tell where you will land or what you're actually collecting compared to the animation of dust or leaves splashing around you. However, it is but a small problem and can easily be solved by just being better at the game.
Now, after S+ ranking your first level, you must wonder, what's next? I'm obviously the best, give me more of a challenge, you dumb game! Well, the game answers your demands quite fast as the second you S+ a level, you are given a key. It is quickly evident that the game is sectioned off into 3 'difficulty' levels. You have the beginning levels of each chapter, which are all unlocked at the start of the game. If you S+ those levels, you acquire a silver key, which unlocks the Silver locked levels, which are moderately difficult. If you manage to S+ even those levels, you then acquire a gold key, which then unlocks, you guessed it, a Gold locked level, which are some of the most grueling and frustrating levels that allow no room for mistakes.
I've found that my skill level lies somewhere between the beginning levels and the silver levels, and you too, will find your place at which you feel most comfortable with the game as well as times where you have no idea what to do and feel lost and helpless. However, it is times like those where you learn the extent of the game's mechanics. This is the same time where I found the game was almost akin to a fighting game or a puzzle, where each small section of a level was like a combo, where you have to figure out the exact timing and number of button presses it takes to solve it. For example, in one level, to get past a treacherous pit filled with spikes, I had to jump, dash, hold up and press light attack, jump once more, hold up and press light attack, and then hold left, attacking a floating raccoon covered in leaves, and jumping again to land on the other side. As you can see, it doesn't translate that well into text, but the feeling of success that wells up in you after a great performance like that, is truly indescribable. It gets to the point where you're on attempt #284, and you have memorized what you have to do and do it without hesitation.
Dustforce is an incredible experience, one that I haven't felt for a long time. It invokes a nostalgic feel with it's art style and low key music, and coupled with it's sonic-like gameplay, it's a perfect mix of new and old. You may not find yourself to be in the same position, and that is fine, but the feeling of both excitement and anxiety at S+ ranking a tough level is great and is one of the main reasons why someone has to try this game out at least once.