The second featured title in Microsoft's Summer of Arcade promotion, From Dust is a "god game" from the mind of Eric Chahi, otherwise known as the creator of the classic game, Out of This World. From Dust tasks players with assisting the native tribe of an earth-like planet as the members follow the path of their ancestors and explore the world. While the tribe does not develop technologically, it does develop culturally. As it does, you slowly gain more powers with which to manipulate the world and assist your followers.
It should be noted that the primary basis of From Dust is problem solving. There are no wars. Your tribe never has to worry about food or rampaging animals. The only real dangers are those posed by nature. That's where you come in. You have the ability to manipulate nature, but you cannot directly control it. Instead, you must figure out how to work with the tools at your disposal to blunt the natural dangers and harness any advantages.
Your primary tool is a sphere called "the breath," which allows you to pick up portions of the world and redeposit them elsewhere. This can be earth, water or fire (lava). Moving earth can be used to create a land bridge or to lay dirt over rocks so that vegetation can grow. Water can be used to extinguish fires, and lava can be used to create rock walls — an excellent way to keep the tidal waves at bay.
Although the breath serves as a base power, you will be granted certain enhancements based on the development of your tribe. For example, one power is called Jellify Water. When used, this turns all water to the consistency of Jell-O, keeping it in place when you remove parts of it. Yes, it's as cool as it sounds, allowing you to have your very own "Moses moment" as you can literally part the seas in order to allow your tribe safe passage.
Another power allows you to temporarily increase the size of your breath, while yet another allows your breath to simply consume whatever is in its path. Pure destruction may not seem all that useful until you're faced with the prospect of keeping an oncoming rush of lava at bay long enough for your tribe to escape.
One point that is worth calling out is the religious aspect. Even though you play a god, From Dust doesn't subscribe to any specific religious sect. The development team has done an excellent of job of respecting the general ideals of religion without making it a cheap gimmick. It's obviously something that the team treated with respect.
What really shines about the gameplay in From Dust is how freeform it can be. Each level always starts out the same, but they never really play out the same. Sure, there are some optimal paths through each level, but even then, how you play is always a bit different due to the physics engine powering the game.
The constantly running physics simulation means that the world is never static. Rivers move dirt and deposit it at their mouths, where a delta forms. Crashing waves erode shores, and erupting volcanoes slowly form islands as lava bubbles up from the core of the planet and is cooled by the ocean. Sadly, From Dust does not offer a pure sandbox mode; it's a disappointment because playing around in the world can be joy in and of itself.
Most players should be able to complete the story mode in around six to eight hours of play. There is no multiplayer; however, From Dust features a challenge mode, which is spread out over 30 different levels and focuses solely on the puzzle aspect of the game. The goal in challenge mode is to complete each level as quickly as possible. Leaderboards rank you on both individual and cumulative score.
For all it does right, there is one big issue with From Dust that handicaps it slightly on the Xbox 360, and that is the precision of the controller. In the later levels, micromanagement is key, and grabbing the wrong item can be a major drawback. Unfortunately, relying on the Xbox 360 controller resulted in this happening more than once. From Dust is one game where a mouse would be a major advantage.
Another issue has to do with the intelligence of your tribe members. Usually, they behave well, but every so often, their simple-minded nature causes problems. Want to settle two towns at once? Not happening. You may have enough men to do it, but it is seemingly impossible to split them into two groups and issue separate orders. Also, when ordering one of them to a location, the AI will sometimes seem to pick a tribe member at random, resulting in a member who is on the far side of the map (and on the other side of a major obstacle) trying to get to an item rather than someone who is in a nearby town with a straight shot over dry land.
Thankfully, all of the issues in From Dust are relatively minor, and none of them really impact the enjoyment that it provides. This is a title where the goal has nothing to do with killing and everything to do with simply helping your tribe to survive. They may just be virtual representations on the TV screen, but it's hard not to feel a bit of joy when they successfully overcome the obstacle at hand.
All in all, Ubisoft seems to have another winner with From Dust. If you have a choice between the console or PC version, the PC version will likely have a slight edge due to the control options, but either way, this is a game that is well worth the price of admission (1,200 Microsoft points or $14.99).
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