"No offense, but seeing you die that many times in this game is actually really annoying," my girlfriend told me as I was playing Dustforce for this review, and I completely understood. I had been dying in a single spot in a single level for the past 15 or so minutes, a spot that was so difficult that each life lasted about 4 seconds before it made the respawn noise, faded out, and faded in for me to do it again. Over and over. For 15 minutes.
So I only recommend you buy Dustforce if you have a lot of time and patience, because it's a game that's going to require both to get through and, ultimately, enjoy.
When you start it out, though, you may think I'm crazy. The first couple of levels in the forest, provided that the forest is the first place you go, are simple enough, and more than that they feel excellent. These are the levels that show you what the game really wants you to play it like. It flows, and each motion and jump takes you from one dirty patch to another, and you clean along the way so smoothly. You get that feeling that you and the game's designers are sharing brain waves here, and you're very clearly following the path they set out for you handily.
Eventually, though, the paths turn more demanding than my ex-girlfriend, and really test your understanding of the controls, each character's specific movement, and the way your momentum changes by every motion. Your team of ninja janitors each has their own quirks: Purple, for example, can triple jump, but her jumps have less height, where Green is a little slower, but stronger and with higher jumps. The dust scattered around the ridiculously difficult platforming levels gives you a sort of ideal path, and in order to keep your combo and clean everything (the two ratings you need to get keys for harder levels), you need to follow it exactly like it's shown.
Which is where problems with control and confusion about abilities starts to be a problem. The game is built heavily on wall and ceiling running, but you'd better get used to spots where you think you're attached to a wall but your input doesn't take, especially if there's a slant of any sort to the surface. I mentioned earlier that Purple can triple jump, but I was never able to do it consistently. I'm really not sure why. Sometimes she would, sometimes she wouldn't, and I could never sense when. I was also unsure of where or how these skills would recharge. I knew you could get them back if you killed an enemy in the air, but even then my moves wouldn't always register.
It's apparently a pretty known issue with players. One forum thread I discovered was full of people complaining about the controls, and even a speedrunner admits that the biggest problem with the game is getting over its quirks. It takes a lot of patience, and is especially a bother when compared to other hardcore platformers like Super Meat Boy, whose controls are so tight it's almost like they read your mind. Dustforce doesn't have that, but the levels are designed with that frame of mind.
This is made even worse with the PS3 controller, where any slight diagonal tilt can make a difference from a straight upward jump to a diagonal jump that can kill you or your combo. On the PC you could play with just the keyboard, allowing for better digital control, and transferring it to the PS3's kind of big, goofy analog sticks allows for that to feel a lot more finicky. The d-pad isn't that much better, as even times I'm holding straight in a single direction it reads otherwise, which is pretty annoying.
Despite this, the game requires the sort of pixel-perfect positioning for some parts that I don't expect from any game. The game punishes any mistake very harshly, so if you lose momentum and happen to fall it can be very difficult to get back up to a dirty spot and keep it all going. There are gaps you need to fall that are no wider than your character sprite. Your hitbox size is pretty obfuscate, and there were a lot of areas where I died and it never looked like I actually got hit. And the combat in the game, though light, really drags the game down to a halt, making you hit an enemy multiple times before moving on. Meanwhile, a single hit on you destroys your combo and kills your combo rating.
This is exacerbated by the lack of a quick restart button by default. Instead, you have to go into the options and remap it onto your controller. Even then, restarts take too long, fading out and then giving you a countdown instead of an automatic "go". There aren't checkpoint restarts, only full level restarts, but reloading a checkpoint destroys your combo anyways, so the developers probably just assumed you didn't want that (though I'd still forget and then groan when a level suddenly reset on me). Plus, if you decide a character wasn't good enough for a level and want another, there is no in-level character select, and you'd have to completely leave and then reload to choose another.
But if you can overcome these problems, if you can deal with the controls, and have the patience to retry over and over and really mold yourself and the game around each other, man, what a feeling. There's a flow to the game that's practically unmatched. You really book it, running up walls, kill enemies in midair and juggle your way between them while catching all the dust they drop. It's a beautiful thing.
That beauty is just so fleeting, though. Dustforce doesn't give you these moments enough and often it felt more like attrition instead, where the game and I just beat each other down until we were both bloody messes with me as the last one standing. Moments of flying through levels lose their draw when you reach other parts of a level that take 20 minutes to get through. You wind up with a game that you have to choose to enjoy byspending time and experimenting with the controls and learning every quirk before it really gives you a fun, fair challenge. And if that sounds like something that you want, Dustforce is good for you. Otherwise, you'll find the game frustrating, overbearing, and a sad reminder that you're never going to transcend the limits of your humanity to play this game like intended.