Get down and dirty with your divine-self.
If the game From Dust has taught me anything, it’s that I’d make an absolutely terrible god. In addition to being lazy, poorly motivated and having a painfully short attention span, I enjoy watching streams of lava engulf my followers far more than is probably acceptable for any self-respecting benevolent deity. Fortunately, From Dust also happens to be an entertaining experiment in digital omnipotence, as a quirky and stylish downloadable title that’s likely to satisfy most players’ inner God complexes.
Developed by Ubisoft’s Montpellier studio under the direction of noted French game designer Éric Chahi (of Out of this World fame), players are given a god’s-eye view of a barren and largely inhospitable world. Your goal is then to lead a group of primitive tribesmen through the unforgiving wilderness — a kind of Old Testament homage that includes a mass exodus through the desert, divine parting of raging seas and yes, even a few burning bushes along the way.
Players’ primary interaction with the world is manifested in the form of “the breath”, a dynamic cursor which can suck up and deposit water, sand and lava to create various bridges, walls and obstacles to aid your followers in their journey. The nameless world of From Dust, however, is anything but the land of milk and honey, with volcanoes, tsunamis, underground geysers and jagged mountains dotting the sun-baked wasteland. As a result, each level in From Dust essentially boils down to a unique terraforming puzzle. The trick is to avert a series of natural disasters long enough for your tribesmen to reach specific totems in order to build villages and gather knowledge (the latter of which offers specific powers, such as the ability to “jellify” water in order to clear temporary safe passages through even the most tumultuous waters). Once your followers have created enough villages and gathered enough knowledge, you then lead your lost tribe to a predetermined exit to continue their journey. It’s a kind of Populous meets SimCity meets Katamary Damacy experience — part living terrarium, part RTS and part game engine gone amok.
Unfortunately, in a game which should be ripe for experimentation, From Dust holds your hand a little too much in the early parts of the game, laying out specific objectives that can really only be accomplished in a set manner. There is the option for some off-the-beaten-path trial and error, but this becomes problematic given that your followers Darwinian survival instincts are virtually non-existent, as is the ability to set specific waypoint paths to their objectives. Watching your plucky tribesmen foolishly wander towards the edge of a river or take a longer and more perilous route to reach their goal can be an experience in divine frustration – as can spending half an hour carefully moving sand and lava only to discover that you’ve essentially terraformed yourself into a corner. For the most part though, these problems are forgivable given From Dust’s intuitive interface and simplistic, yet surprisingly deep gameplay. The fun comes from taking in the gorgeous environments, puzzling out the dangers, and literally molding the world around your followers to avert catastrophe. Latter parts of the game in particular require some careful multi-tasking in terms of diverting unpredictable natural disasters and keeping a close eye on the state of your followers.
In addition to the single-player campaign, From Dust also includes a series of unlockable maps which can then be accessed in the game’s Challenge Mode. While not quite the free-style sandbox mode From Dust seems to be crying out for, the levels in challenge mode offer a number of fun and tightly focused experiences (for example, escort villagers using only your water controlling abilities). It’s not quite as satisfying as having a built-in level editor or simply letting players have free reign to experiment with certain maps, but the end result is a thoughtful and much appreciated add-on to the game’s core campaign experience.
Visually, From Dust is absolutely stunning. The water tech and terrarforming textures are top notch and the ability to zoom in on specific villagers at any given time brings a real sense of scale to the experience. The game should also be commended for its impressive musical score, from the orchestral cinematic soundtrack to the simple flutes and drums which accompany the villagers’ progress. It’s rare to see a downloadable title with such a high level of visual and audio polish.
From Dust is an ambitious title that offers a down and dirty dose of divinity. At times it overreaches a little too much, failing to capitalize on its sandbox potential, yet its unique gameplay and impressive design elements are worth exploring. Don’t believe the Nietzschean hype. In From Dust, God is still alive and well. He just happens to be a lethargic 31-year old gamer hopped up on Dr. Pepper and Doritos.
From Dust was developed and published by Ubisoft Montpellier. It is available for download over Xbox LIVE Arcade for 1200 Microsoft Points (roughly $15 dollars US). A PSN and PC version will be available later this year.
Adam Volk is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in publications including Gamasutra, The National Post, Urban Male Magazine, and the New York Review of Science Fiction. For more of his pop culture ramblings, please visit his website at zombie-geek.com. He can also be found on Twitter @ZombieGeek