I’ve always had a special place in my heart for city builders and god games ever since the first time I played Populous. It was a new experience to step outside of my gaming comfort zone of RPG’s and platformers that dominated store shelves. I didn’t know it at the time – I was seven after all – but Populous was teaching me that actions had consequences and that sometimes I needed to think ahead in order to succeed. Looking back I can credit that game for my life-long interest in chess and blame it for my late 90’s Sim City addiction. Ubisoft’s newest downloadable game, From Dust, evokes a similar appeal from the very opening moments and builds on it in many unique and appealing ways. The result is something beautiful that proudly stands on its own and will likely be a similar gateway game for many other Gamers looking to stray outside of their comfort zone.
Move Hell & Heaven
From Dust, by Ubisoft Montpellier, is a world building God game in the literal sense of the term. There’s no economy building, resource gathering or micromanagement, but that doesn’t mean From Dust is a simple game, far from it. You play as The Breath, a god-like entity that can reshape the world by picking up large amounts of matter and releasing it elsewhere. Your aim is to help guide tiny ant-sized humans toward various totems so that they can create surrounding villages which will ultimately unlock a final shrine that allows your people move on. You’ll be using water, sand, rock, and lava to reshape the world in hopes of guaranteeing the survival of your people, but what’s so unique about the experience is that the very thing you need in order to succeed is the very thing that you must fear.
As The Breath, new powers will be unlocked for you when you help get your people to a new totem (the village must survive for you to retain the power). These powers will allow you to hold more matter, turn water into jelly (so you can literally scoop out pathways), extinguish fires, evaporate water and destroy matter. You can also send your people to retrieve knowledge that grants them the ability to repel water and lava, which they can then share with the other villages around the map. Most of the time you need to bring all of these elements together in a timely enough fashion so that you can avoid the extinction of your people at the hands of a restless volcano or incoming tsunami. It might take you a dry run through a map before you figure out exactly what to do, especially since the later ones have a much slimmer margin for error. That said, most maps can be completed a number of ways, especially when you take into account the volatile nature of the map you’re working with and how much some of them can change over time.
From Dust shines most when it pits you against the elements and doesn’t restrict you with time limits, something it could have done a bit more of – like including an endless sandbox. You’ll discover that you need water to irrigate sand to create vegetation for your people but the water can also wash away that sand if there’s too much of it. Then again, you need enough water to turn lava into stone or the lava will evaporate the water and potentially set fire to the vegetation, burn your villages down and kill your people. Using the elements to your benefit is hard to do but thrilling and rewarding when you accomplish your goal.
It’s a good thing the complexity of the game unravels at an accommodating pace, though some players will find the challenge to be fairly deceptive. The first couple levels teach you that one trigger picks up matter and the other releases it, but in no time you’re trying to acquire specific powers before an event takes place and wipes you out. Later when you have a number of objectives and threats in play all at once things become exceedingly difficult. You can expect to spend the first few minutes on later maps just trying to figure out what you need to do before doing anything.
Mountain Out Of A Molehill
Of course, some players won’t appreciate the unpredictability that comes naturally from having so many elements in play. Your people’s decision to start so perilously close to flowing lava or directly beneath an overflowing water dam can become a bit irritating when things don’t go well. Of course, you can always move populated totems out of harm’s way and to a place of your choosing. Usually the game gives you enough time to make a move, if only just.
From Dust also shows remnants of either dropped ideas or underdeveloped ideas. During the campaign you’re introduced to water plants that release a pool of water when near the presence of fire, fire trees that randomly set their surroundings on fire and exploding plants that blow up when lit with fire. These are used in a few of the levels but they’re never as fleshed out or as much fun as the standard earth shaping mechanics. I had far more fun starting in levels totally submerged with water, trying to figuring out how to create land brides for my people, than I did when I was moving around plants to stop forest fires. That could just be a personal thing, and at the end of the day the physics and laws governing these properties are all soundly executed.
If there isn’t something you’re finding in the campaign mode then you may find it in one of the five pages of challenge maps included in the game. Here, you’re not doing the same scale of tasks but instead trying to complete focused goals in a short amount of time. On top of the challenge maps there’s plenty of lore to uncover. During the story you can send your people off to collect special memory tomes which will add to your list of memories. You can also try to spread vegetation to 100% of your land on each map which will also reward you with memories, a nice reward and a neat little extra challenge.
But what really makes From Dust so re-playable is the dynamic nature, literally and figuratively, of the whole premise. When it doesn’t stray too far away from its core and it sticks to the shifting, shaking and changing of the earth From Dust is quite unlike anything else being offered from current games. You can get swept up in the fantastical mysticism of the journey or swept away with the ever-present metaphor that life is truly malleable. You get good value for your 1200 MS points ($15) and the few issues of frustration are worth overlooking for such a fresh experience. Whether it’s now for Microsoft’s Summer of Arcade or later on the PC and PS3, From Dust is easy to recommend and a game that will disappoint few of you. In delivering such a tough but rewarding challenge in such a unique but familiar package, Ubisoft Montpellier has given us one more reason to believe that the best games of the year are coming from the downloadable market.
Final Score: 88
85-89% – “Marvelous” A superb title that stumbles only a bit. The game provides a unique experience or shows the ability to rise to the top of its genre in most major facets, it just can’t figure out how to exceed it. Easy to recommend.
Robert-James Bell is the lead editor of the Video Game Review site: [url not allowed]