Humans love to play God, don’t we? From engineers to geneticists, we’re always trying to bend the laws of nature. Usually the ability to do so takes extensive education, years of training, and a metric ton of money. Thankfully, Ubisoft and Eric Chahi have put that ability directly into your omnipotent little hands with the second release from the Xbox summer of arcade, From Dust.
From Dust is a God game in a somewhat loose sense of the term. As opposed to manipulating your followers and their actions as we’re used to in God games, you instead control the environment around them. There are three basic elements under your command: lava, earth, and water. You take control of a divine vacuum called “The Breath”. With The Breath you are able to manipulate the elements around you, sucking them up into a whirling orb and then depositing them where you see fit. Soil will bridge flowing rivers, lava will cool into rock formations, and water will put out a spreading fire. You use these powers to enable your primitive followers, aptly named “The Men”, to move around the environmental hazards on the map and repopulate villages that are situated around totems. After using your cache of godly powers to help your minions populate all of the villages, they will move to an exit portal and on to the next world. Populated villages also grant you a variety of special god-like powers such as the ability to jellify water, which effectively allows you to part the sea and create a dry path through a body of water. Think Moses and The Red Sea. As the game progresses you will also gain the use of certain trees that also have their own special powers and the ability to collect knowledge that will protect your villages from lava flows or floods. Juggling this collection of powers make you realize what a tough job a God truly has.
From the moment I sat down with From Dust, I noticed a small feeling germinating in the back of my mind. I couldn’t put my finger on it at first, so I soldiered on through the tutorial levels and let my mysterious sensation incubate. This notion took root and grew, building pressure. And then, just about the same time I was rerouting my first lava flow, it hit me like a volcanic eruption: this game is refreshing. From beginning to end, from the art style to game play, From Dust is truly unique. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not looking at a perfect game. But the originality and truly enjoyable concept behind it far outweigh any of the problems that would detract from it.
The first wave of creativity to crash over me was the beauty and richness of the game world. From the get go, the look and sound of this game whisked me away to a mystical world the likes of which I had never seen. As you sit listening to the drone of tribal drumming, watching a beautiful stream erode away a wispy sand dune, it’s hard not to imagine yourself on some far away planet not so very different from our own.
From Dust is a puzzle game at heart. With that said, it presents itself in such a unique and meaningful way that it hardly feels appropriate be labeled with such a cut and dry classification. When placed in the context of such an elaborate and engrossing world, the fact that the challenges you face are actually puzzles seems merely an afterthought. Where the puzzle aspect truly does shine through is the difficulty level. From Dust is, without a doubt, a very challenging game. As I breezed through the earlier levels, a bit of trepidation began to seep through. I was running though them at a such quick and regular pace that I began to wonder if moving piles of dirt from one place to another was all this game had to offer me. However, after the game held my hand for a few levels and decided to drop the real game play on me, it did it quick and it did it hard. I failed often as I learned the intricacies of the game, but it almost never felt unfair. Notice how I said almost? We’ll get to that shortly. In the late stages of your progress, things do get increasingly hectic. When you reach the final few levels, the game will throw a few unexpected surprises your way…
“Whats that? All of your villages are populated, you say? Well here’s a flood of biblical proportions just to make things interesting… You’ve met Noah, right?”
After the shock subsided, I always felt like it was simply the game throwing down the proverbial gauntlet and telling me to adapt. It was one more challenge to overcome in a game full of challenges. However, there was one point when challenging quickly turned into ridiculous. Not impossible, mind you, just cheap. By this point I had reached the end of the game though, and it went out with one absurd bang leaving me with an overall feeling of being challenged instead of jilted. I have the nagging suspicion that if the game would have continued on past that point it could have easily inspired frustration. But as things stand, I feel that it walks the line between challenging and frustrating very well.
Anyone that is a fan of this type of simulation type game will tell you that a large part it’s success depends on the accuracy of the controls, especially on consoles. Unfortunately this is where I ran into a few small gripes with From Dust. In a game where so much depends on the efficiency of where you remove and deposit the elements you are manipulating, sometimes it is hard to tell where your cursor is in the 3D space. This leads to situations where you think you have created a clear and even path for your followers to traverse, but instead they end up getting stuck and screaming at you in their completely artificial, but also completely believable language because you haven’t removed a small pool of water that lies in their path. Apparently primitives are terrified of puddles. It can also produce small mistakes like setting a jungle ablaze with an errant drop of lava resulting in the annihilation of entire villages. No one ever said being God was easy. Even though this will possibly lead to a small amount of frustration, it is in no way a game breaking flaw. In most cases everything functions acceptably and your villagers go on with their happy little lives.
Although the make-up of the game itself is so engrossing that I always felt invested in the universe that my followers were inhabiting, the actual campaign conveys almost no story at all. Basically, The Men have lost contact with their ancestors and are on a journey through these exotic lands to try to rekindle that connection. Every level begins with a short narrative disclosing the connection of how the current world they are inhabiting is connected to “The Ancients”. No fuss, no frills, it’s just that simple. However, hidden around the various worlds are small monuments called memories. These memories, if you choose to collect them, will add log entries that you can read to learn more about the world around you. The option gives you the ability to learn as much or as little as you choose about the mythos behind From Dust and is a fantastic way for you to tailor your experience.
Also included are a set of 30 challenge levels that amount to small, bite sized puzzles. They give you control of only a small portion of your powers and ask you to work through a scenario to come to a final outcome. For instance, it may ask you to have a villager collect the knowledge of protection from floods because a tsunami is approaching. It’s up to you to figure out how to do so before the village crushing wave strikes. Although cleverly constructed, I found myself losing interest in the challenges fairly quickly. Unlike the campaign, the challenges become almost unbearably difficult and frustrating. Most of the later puzzles require great precision and perfect timing, which as I mentioned before are not From Dust‘s strongest assets. They’re a great option if you wish to partake in them, but are also completely disposable and not at all relevant to the much more interesting and entertaining campaign.
When all is said and done I can’t help but to relate my experience with From Dust to the first time I played Portal. The more I thought about why I was forming that association, the more I couldn’t help but think that it’s because they were both amazing experiences for me. And From Dust is exactly that… a grand, mystical experience that I was completely and utterly enveloped by. It’s a fantastic feeling when you come across a game that gives you that visceral type of satisfaction and it reminded me of exactly why I fell in love with gaming in the first place. After playing From Dust I may not be any closer to becoming god-like, but the experience sure was divine.