The rock-hard platformer has enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent months, thanks largely to a blossoming indie scene, and Dustforce is the latest entry in this gleefully painful subgenre. And, yes, it is difficult and you will die. This is a game about perfection through repetition, and you'll repeat Dustforce's few dozen levels so often it's not uncommon to be walloped with a powerful sense of déjà vu.
Perfunctory tasks of sliding, running up walls and swishing away monsters in this 2D platformer are justified by a delightfully bonkers premise of a crack squad of elite cleaners ridding a countryside, spooky mansion and freaky industrial lab of bothersome dirt and grime.
Other than being able to run upside down across ceilings - chaining together your first elaborate ceiling run is a rare moment of bliss, for the record - there's a meter at the bottom of your screen that fills as you gobble up grime, and allows you to obliterate everything in your line of sight. Using this skill properly is absolutely necessary for proper success.
Momentum is key, and maintaining it is absolutely vital as the game's responsive but rigid controls make tiny readjustments both difficult and devastating to your score. Levels are teeming with rubbish, which ironically shapes your route through each level into a neat and tidy path, and your character brushes it away automatically as you pass over it. Dustforce's elusive ranking is the S/S, delivered when you sweep away all of a level's rubbish while maintaining a constant combo meter.
The rich pastel aesthetic will inevitably recall Super Meat Boy, although Dustforce's goal is to inspire player finesse rather than Team Meat's expertly realised ambition of having players bludgeoning levels until their eventual submission. Clearing rubbish and swatting monsters will cause your combo meter to tick steadily upwards, and will stay active unless you take damage or fail to increment it within a few seconds.
Dustforce is one of those games where you'll blast through to the end of a level first try, then fail its easy first jump thirty times when you go back to get a better ranking. It's also one of those games where pressing the restart button will become instinct, and you will definitely find yourself muttering some remarkably unsavoury things from time to time that I'd never be allowed to repeat in print.
At least the beautiful and calming soundtrack takes some of the edge off, although Hitbox was probably legally required to pipe something soothing into our heads else risk enraging a group of hormonal teenagers (and me) into forming some kind of reactionary militia.
In a particularly nice touch, the game opts to forsake contemporary trends and offer but one single Steam achievement - awarded for getting S/S in every level. You probably won't ever get it, but this is a game so delicately balanced the real joy comes from the experience of never getting it.
Nailing that precious S/S grants you keys which can be used to unlock later levels across any of the game's three zones, so there's absolutely no way to bumble your way to the credits. This will likely infuriate some players, but Dustforce nicely offsets the rising frustration that comes from greater difficulties by letting you run off to another corner of the map and play around with other easier levels first.
Finishing a level will upload your score and a replay to the online leaderboards, and also give you the ability to watch the performance of every other player who has also finished the level. It's a brilliant feature, helping you learn the game's intricacies - such as the nuance of the dash move - by observing the efforts of your (in my case, vastly superior) peers. While local multiplayer has been included, the leaderboards will be your primary source of competition.
I'd strongly recommend playing with a pad, however, mainly because it's nice to have something you feel like you want to throw across the room after you've fluffed up - the game does not have native support for the 360 pad, but it can be easily remapped. There's also some scruffy menu work which clashes with the elegance of the rest of the package, though much of the game is played from a hub world.
Dustforce comes into its own after you've invested some time, transforming into a frantic and occasionally frustrating experience that manages to eke out repeat play. It's a platformer at heart, but it's also about exploring the limits of your characters' movement and manipulating the environment for maximum success. This is a game that demands beautiful play and, for those people who get off on difficult games, will take your heart to the cleaners.
Version tested: PC