Imagine if the Genesis section of the Bible went a little something like this:
And God gathered the earth and the seas,
He looked to Adam and Eve on the Island of Eden,
Then a nearby volcano exploded,
And God accidentally washed his people into the ocean while trying to fight some fires.
– Genesis 4:20
My guess is that the Christian God might not be so popular. He probably wouldn’t have made it to the status of infallible deity. The point being, the gods we play in ‘god games’ must come across to their people as total dicks.
Eric Chahi’s From Dust is better described as a geo-manipulation and inadvertent abuse of tribal peoples simulator than a ‘god game’.
In it, you play The Breath, an ethereal spirit with the ability to scoop up spheres of material like earth, lava and water and redeposit those materials across various island landscapes. Your talents are the power of geology made cursor, and your goal is to urge your fledgling tribe to form villages around totems that are found on each map. Some of these totems provide The Breath with additional powers, such as the ability to temporarily evaporate water or gather up a greater volume of each material, which will further aid you in your objective.
You’ll need to muster as much of that demi-god strength as possible, because each of the 13 story mode missions (save for the first couple which are linear tutorials) contains a natural disaster waiting to befall your unfortunate little guys. It’s not uncommon for a level to begin with your people stranded on a small patch of rock as a volcano erupts on one side and water cascades down a steep slope on the other. Fortunately, many of the maps also feature protective powers that protect villages against the effects of fire and water. But you’ll always need to send someone on a dangerous trek to fetch it, so they can spread the knowledge amongst each tribal settlement.
Both water and lava flows look absolutely fantastic in this game, as do the majority of the geological effects. The feeling evoked by the first sight of a tsunami crashing against the coast of an island, eroding the landscape into new shapes and washing back out to sea is one of astonishment and awe. It becomes a joy to move and manipulate liquid flows by building barriers of earth and cooled volcanic rock (materials interact as you’d expect, so dumping some magma in an open area will form a solid pillar). As the missions become more advanced, you’ll need to get quite adept at figuring out where to block or redirect source materials, using them to your advantage and avoiding any catastrophic overspills.
While the flow dynamics in From Dust are magnificent, the same can’t really be said for the graphics in general. There’s a liberal use of upscaled textures which leads to considerable blurring; especially at the most distant camera viewpoint (which is likely to be the one you use most often). Trees will pop in and out of existence as you scroll across the island surfaces, and distant details sometimes seem like they’re being viewed through a thin layer of vaseline.
This, presumably, is the result of technical limitations and a whole bunch of console power being eaten up by those delicious water flows. So it seems to be a necessary trade-off. Nonetheless it’s a shame, as individual renders (like the tribes-people themselves) are also terrific.
There are problems with AI pathfinding too. You have no direct control over followers, so when you tell them to head towards a totem or other point of interest, they figure out their own route there. Inevitably, a stupid one. Now, it’s something of a tradition in this genre that your worshippers are a bit inept, but it’s no less annoying in 2011 than it was back in the ‘god game’ heyday of the early 90s.
Sometimes the little chaps can’t manage to get up a gentle slope that they were capable of negotiating just moments before. Occasionally they’ll try to take a really boneheaded route to the objective you point them towards, like around some deadly lava rather than across the shorter path you’ve created for them. There doesn’t really seem to be much consistent logic to this. Sometimes members of your tribe will just do something moronic.
Most of the story mode missions give you enough breathing room and time to make mistakes, making the pathfinding a little less irritating than it would’ve been in a more hectic title. But when it does happen at a time-critical moment, it’s rather frustrating.
Although From Dust’s story missions are presented as self-contained problems (calm the volcano, figure out how to reach a totem that keeps being submerged by the ocean and so on), once you get beyond the first couple of maps there’s a pleasing amount of flexibility in how these issues can be solved.
The penultimate level takes place inside a huge volcanic crater that also periodically floods with water, and it took all my geo-manipulating abilities to keep the natural world in check and my people safe. Villages were formed, destroyed and reformed across the course of about an hour, leaving me perilously close to destruction at times. This kind of back and forth tussle with From Dust’s environments, pulling out a victory from the brink of devastation, is where the game’s strength lies.
A similar feeling can occasionally resurface during the title’s Challenge levels (30 in all, when they’re unlocked), but the focus of these is much more towards standalone puzzles. These maps are most successful when testing your lateral thinking skills and deft use of resources; like using a handful of water to speed a tribes-person down a cliff face so he can reach a village with some life-saving knowledge before a tsunami hits. Others rely far too much on an obvious idea that just requires precision control to pull off. This is problematic, because From Dust’s control scheme can sometimes feel a bit like a drunk man trying to pick up some change in a carpark.
Using an Xbox 360 pad just doesn’t give you the precision needed for many of the tighter Challenge maps. A mouse should, in theory, provide more accuracy, so it’ll be interesting to see how the PC release handles controls. Though an alternative will need to be found for the analogue control over material deposit rates (done, at present, through the pad’s shoulder triggers).
It’ll also be interesting to see if a PC release adds more control over the game’s camera. At present, From Dust has just two isometric-style viewpoints (one near, one slightly further away), and an option for an overhead view when zoomed it.
The complaints I’ve made about the game throughout this review are minor in isolation (and for the most part can be worked around or got used to), but they begin to stack up after extended periods of play and start to grate.
Something I’m delighted not to be moaning about, though, is the issue of a sandbox mode. From Dust pulls off a bit of a lengthy tease with this, making you long for a mode in which you’re given free reign over the environment, only to actually deliver one at the last possible moment.
The final mission of the story mode (which can easily be revisited at any time) gives you the tools to raise all the mountains, volcanos and phallus-shaped lakes you could wish for, plus a decent amount of space to screw around in. It comes as a wonderful pay-off after a tricky series of preceeding levels and feels like a crucial inclusion.
With its environmental mechanics and paternal tone, From Dust is a bit of a throwback to the peon-sheparding, landscape manipulation days of games like Populous, Powermonger and Mega Lo Mania. That’s no bad thing, because the ‘god’ genre was relatively niche at the time (occupied, in the main, by Bullfrog), so the release of a contemporary title in that vein actually feels pretty ambitious. Although the game is hampered by a collection of small problems (camera blur, imprecise controls and dubious AI pathfinding), there are enough moments of simulated natural wonder to submerge those doubts. It really feels good to be a divine dick again.