A game that wears its influences proudly on its sleeve, From Dust is the brainchild of Another World creator Eric Chahi. Playing as an unseen force known as The Breath you’re tasked with ensuring that the primitive tribesmen of the world manage to survive and thrive against the challenges of an unforgiving world. But behind an initially impressive concept and outward appearance, some cracks appear behind these relatively solid foundations.
But before I get ahead of myself, lets get into the nitty-gritty of how the game works. In the story mode, you start off each level with a group of tribesmen, and must lead these men to various totems dotted around the map. To get there, they must traverse the terrain by calling upon you to manipulate the environment around them. You can absorb matter, whether that be earth, water or lava and then put down these elements again where you choose. The most obvious task is building a bridge of earth over a body of water, but there are soon other, slightly more complex tasks to handle. Your objective is then further complicated by the natural disasters on each world, such as volcanoes and tsunami’s which threaten to drown/ignite/otherwise prevent your tribesmen from reaching their goal, but to offset this you’re eventually given access to certain ‘powers’ which grant abilities such as Jellify Water allowing you to part bodies of the stuff and carve out a path or Infinite Earth which as it’s name suggests, gives you an infinite amount of earth to spread how you please for a limited time.
On the positive side, the game does look impressive – of course it does have a rather distinct style with the tribal motifs and some excellent music. Each level may not be very big, but there’s still a sense of grandeur as you make a mountain raise from the sea, or attempt to halt a huge Tsunami by some tactical distribution of Lava. And the way each element interacts with the others in roughly the way you’d expect it to – take some earth from the centre of an island, and of course the sides slide down a bit to fill the hole you just made. Make a hill by some running water, and the flow will redirect in a way you’d expect water to. Even the lava has just the right amount of viscosity to it – it doesn’t move too fast, or too slow.
Sadly, obscuration and frustration are two words that sum up my experiences with From Dust pretty well. One major problem with the game is sadly, the XBox control system. There’s no doubt using the left trigger to pick up matter and right trigger to deposit it makes sense, but the game at times feels like it demands a precision that is very difficult to do with joysticks. It’s made that little bit more frustrating when the fact that when your cursor fills up with matter – whether that be Earth, Water or Lava – it obscures said cursor to the point you have to jiggle the camera to see exactly where you’re depositing the contents of the Breath. Granted, on some maps this isn’t a problem but there are multiple instances – and this is especially apparent on the Challenge Maps, where the majority of the time you’re under an incredibly tight time limit to save the tribe – of being slightly off resulting in wasting Earth by dropping it in the ocean where it can’t be picked up again, or not quite managing to stem the flow of Lava or water quite as tightly as you intended, inevitably resulting in a restarting of the entire map – which is incredibly frustrating on some of the longer levels. Equally annoying is the ‘release all matter’ function, which has been unwisely mapped to the triggers and in theory achieved by pressing both triggers at the same time. Sadly, in my experience this only worked once every four or five times which led to more than one bout of shouting at the screen when I couldn’t empty the Breath fast enough – the inability to remap this function to, say, the shoulder buttons is equally baffling given they’re barely used for anything.
Another disappointment comes in the tribesmen themselves. Their only function is to provide something to get to the goal, via totems and picking up the stones that allow them to defend the villages against water and lava. That’s it. There’s no difference between villages aside from the powers they grant, there’s no functions unique to certain tribesfolk outside of aesthetics – they’re largely disposable as long as you keep enough alive to have at least one village which then produces more. The only ‘special’ type of tribesman is the shaman (who goes to retrieve and distribute one of the only two village powers) who is easily replaced if they die. It feels like a missed opportunity, to have perhaps special villagers that would be better at certain things to perhaps encourage you to take special care of certain ones, or at least introduce new mechanics. It’s also telling that only the last level of the story mode has anything approaching a sandbox style mechanic, which for a God game feels like a rather frank admission that there’s not really as much depth as it first appears with From Dust. In the end, there’s only really three types of matter, and though the various trees introduce some puzzle elements, even they are as transparently basic as Rock-Paper-Scissors can get.
Indeed, the best bit of From Dust, strangely enough, is the Challenge modes. As linear as you can get, at least here it’s the most ‘game-like’ in a sense. The tasks are slightly more varied than those in the main story mode, and here the limitations work to the game’s advantage far more than the story. It’s these that also present the most replay value, encouraging you to go back and best your times on each challenge. In the story mode, the only reason really to go back is to cover the area in plants, which after successfully completing the area becomes largely trivial, rather than providing genuine replay value as covering the area in plants literally has no tangible gameplay benefit outside of doing it for the sake of unlocking a piece of text. After around 50% of each area is covered, animals are attracted to the area, but again they’re literally nothing but aesthetics and seem completely pointless.
This all said, it’s not as if From Dust is a terrible game – (Right now I’m reviewing another title that holds that dubious honour) – but it’s certainly not the game we’d hope it would be. I dare say the PC version will be somewhat better than the XBox one, if only for the fact the controls seem far more suited to the precision a mouse and keyboard can offer. But there’s something not all there about From Dust. It’s a game that’s already divided opinion, and certainly if you can forgive it’s many niggles you’ll just about get your money’s worth. But if From Dust was released at any other time of year than the summer drought, I dare say it’d need a lot more fleshing out to truly be called The Next Great God Game.
Verdict: Off Target
Platforms available: Xbox 360 (Out now on XBLA), PC (Released 17th August on Steam)
Version reviewed: Xbox 360