From Dust is, essentially, a “God Game”. For many of you, that may be a concept you’re not entirely familiar with. This genre has been undersubscribed for a generation but for a while, it was big business. Starting with games like Populous, it inspired elements of the Theme Park, Theme Hospital and Tycoon games before trying for a resurgence with Black & White and, in many ways, Spore.
Perhaps the God genre’s influence is most popular these days – in its watered down, derivative guise – in The Sims 3. If The Sims is the populist, Entertainment Weekly version of the God Game, From Dust is the National Geographic version. It’s a God Game of old, simplified for modern sensibilities and console controls.[drop]You’re tasked with ensuring the survival and expansion of a tribe of mask-wearing, weak willed villagers. You are The Breath, a kind of geological energy with the power to move elements of the landscape from one place to another, like a kind of divine Caterpillar digger. You can suck up earth, water or lava and deposit it elsewhere on the map in order to redirect rivers and lava flows or build land bridges through lakes or between archipelagos. The aim is to get your villagers to each of the map’s Totems, build a village to earn a new power and move on to the next Totem. Once all villages are built, you can exit the map via the passage.
It’s a fairly simple premise but don’t be fooled into thinking this is simply a kind of tame sandbox-style toy chest in which you have plenty of time to faff around, shaping landscapes and watching your villages flourish. The world of From Dust is a harsh, hostile place and you’ll need to be quick and focussed to get through later levels.
You have no direct control over the villagers, aside from telling them you’d like them to make their way to a Totem, passage or one of the special prayer stones which teach the villagers new supernatural powers. Via these stones, the villagers can learn music which gives them the ability to repel water and to repel lava and fire. In order to learn the power, you must send a villager to the stone and he must make it back to each village safely with the knowledge. If he dies on his way back, the knowledge dies with him. Each new village you found must have these powers delivered to them, after they’ve been founded, before it’s possible to use them. There are also hidden prayer stones which open new entries in the game’s brief encyclopaedia and unlock challenge maps.
Each colonised Totem rewards you with another power for your godly skill set. For example, sometimes you will earn the power to suck up far more of a material into your divine orb, meaning you can work much quicker. Sometimes you will gain the power to jellify the water so that it can be channelled like the earth, essentially parting the sea to allow your villagers a path to another island. Each of these extra powers, activated with a push of the directional pad, lasts only for a set amount of time and must be allowed to recharge before it can be used again. So, if you don’t get your timing right, you might see the water re-liquify and wash away your travelling villagers.[drop2]One final layer of complexity exists within the flora of the landscape. As you reclaim land form the sea and found villages, the flora will return to the land. You can unlock story elements to view from the menus by filling the landscape with trees and creating conditions which encourage the wildlife to return. Those trees are flammable though, so if they spread too wildly and come into contact with lava, they can allow the resulting flames a route back to your village and ultimately destroy it.
There are also special kinds of trees which you can pluck and replant to aid your progression through a map. Water trees gradually engorge with water and then discharge when fire comes into contact with them. This quells the flames but if they’re positioned uphill from a village, they might wash through that conurbation too. Fire trees periodically burst into flames so they need to be transported away from foliage that could alight your villages. The fire trees become useful tools when paired with exploding trees though. These gradually recharge and explode when they come into contact with fire, allowing you to blast craters in rock which can help channel water or lava away from villagers.
It is incredibly complicated, with a lot to monitor, but the simplicity of the controls means that it never gets too frustrating. The controls work well with a console controller but will probably be more natural with a PC mouse (or, dare we hope, PlayStation Move).
From Dust looks lovely, with gorgeous water effects and fluid dynamics. The levels start off quick and simple but rapidly become quite long winded, tense and difficult. The underlying narrative is a bit of a wishy-washy new age fable about the earth being a living thing but it serves the gameplay well enough simply by being enough of a background event that it doesn’t intrude on the gameplay. And it’s the gameplay which makes From Dust stand out.
Sure, the genre isn’t exactly bustling with activity but From Dust is a great example of it. The unlockable (via hidden stones and that foliage mechanic I mentioned earlier) challenge maps provide a kind of mini-game element which tasks you with performing specific duties in as quick a time as possible but they feel almost too focussed to be a part of the same game. Suddenly, what was a vague objective with a plethora of pathways to a solution becomes a specific, focussed task which feels unnatural. It’s a nice enough idea but it feels like it was only pushed in to try to gain some leaderboard-inspired longevity to the game.
- Looks gorgeous.
- Unlike anything this generation.
- Real freedom to approach a problem however you see fit.
- A series of simple mechanics tied together to create a complex set of tools.
- Challenge maps feel a bit unnecessary.
- Some larger maps can feel like a grind.
From Dust is something slightly different in modern console gaming. It takes a genre which has historically been about human needs and desires and makes it about geological solutions to the single, simple premiss of all God games: survival. The simplicity of the tools and the complexity of the puzzles are perfectly juxtaposed to make a wonderful experience for anyone who likes the genre but it should equally appeal to puzzle fans.