First released on the Xbox 360 earlier this year as part of Microsoft's Summer of Arcade promotion, From Dust received a positive reception from critics and consumers alike. A month later, when the same game debuted on the PC, it was criticized for poor performance and onerous DRM restrictions. Consumer outrage was so great that Steam even took the unusual step of refunding unhappy purchasers. Now, Eric Chahi's "god game" has made its way to PSN, and we took it for a spin to see how it fared in the transition.
Spread across 13 levels, From Dust chronicles the story of a nomadic tribe that is attempting to follow the path of its ancestors as it explores the world in a search for eternal sanctuary. The tribe doesn't have much in the way of technology, but what it does have is access to "the breath." That's where you come in. The breath is a floating sphere that allows you to interact with the world in a limited fashion. You can pick up and manipulate earth, water and fire (lava) as well as various plants with the breath. The ultimate goal is to provide safe passage for your tribe.
Because of the limited nature of the breath, each level in From Dust plays out more like a puzzle than a traditional strategy game. Your tribe never has to worry about resources, there is no production queue and none of the creatures in the world can harm you. The only danger your tribe faces is from the world itself. Fire can burn them, and water can drown them.
What makes From Dust so appealing is the physics engine that powers the world. Although each map always starts off the same, there is no guarantee that it will play out the same. In fact, simply replaying the game can easily result in wildly different layouts at the end of each level. Why? Because nature never stops working.
Water is the most prominent force of nature in the game, with rivers both eroding existing land as well as depositing soil to create large deltas. Periodic tsunamis can level a village in an instant if you don't have protection. Fire is also a concern, with ground vegetation doubling as kindling. One small burn can quickly turn into a raging fire that consumes the closest town. Lava is both a blessing and a curse. Left unchecked, it can destroy just as quickly as a tsunami, but as a tool, it allows you to create rock walls that don't erode.
In addition to manipulating nature, you also gain a handful of specific powers as your tribe progresses through the game. These powers are designed to aid in your manipulation of nature, though they only act in an indirect nature. For example, one power is evaporate, which temporarily increases the temperature and causes standing water to disappear. Another gives you a time-limited ability to generate as much earth as you want, while still another grants the power to turn water into jelly — giving you the ability to part the seas for your followers.
With all of the flexibility offered by the engine, the one thing missing from From Dust is a true sandbox mode. While you can always return to a completed level to manipulate it, only the very last level gives you full access to your powers. To compensate, From Dust does offer a fairly robust challenge mode. Challenge mode consists of 30 different levels, each of which tasks you with completing a specific objective as quickly as possible. You're fighting nature as well as the clock.
Given that the PlayStation 3 version of From Dust is a faithful port of the Xbox 360 original, it also suffers from the same drawbacks of that version. The precision of the controller is still an issue, with the DualShock 3 feeling just as imprecise as the Xbox 360 controller on the later levels. We were hoping that Ubisoft would have used the additional development time to improve this aspect of the game. Alas, that's not the case.
The other noticeable issue with From Dust is the pathfinding intelligence of your tribe members. At times, it can be pretty poor. When ordering tribe members to a location, it is impossible to pick and choose who is to be sent, and the AI doesn't always choose the closest person. It almost seems as if it chooses at random. It is also impossible to split your tribe across two goals. This is true even if you have more than enough men to do so.
While frustrating in the moment, none of the issues in From Dust really detract from the overall game. Sure, your tribe members may have a horrible sense of direction, but in the end, figuring out how to keep them all alive is where the enjoyment really lies.
Compared to the Xbox 360 iteration, the PS3 version of From Dust is nearly identical, with only some very minor graphical issues giving the Xbox 360 version the edge. Doing an A/B comparison on the same monitor, images and text in the PS3 were softer, though aliasing was still present along with occasional screen tearing on fast-moving sequences.
If you have both systems, snag the XBLA version of From Dust. If you're solely a PS3 gamer, then don't hesitate. With freeform gameplay and an enchanting visual style, From Dust is well worth the asking price of $15.
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