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From Dust Review

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Developer: Ubisoft Montpellier Publisher: Ubisoft
Release Date: July 27, 2011 Available On: PC, PS3 and Xbox 360

Life as a god must be difficult — at least if the new god game From Dust is a reliable indication. As the second entry in this year’s Summer of Arcade lineup for Xbox Live Arcade, From Dust offers a unique take on the omnipotent simulation genre that the foregoing Populous and Black and White have helped mold. However, rather than crafting intricate societies or twisting the will of the people to your whims, From Dust casts you as a comparatively humbled deity, tasked with ensuring the safety of its denizens en route to settling villages around predetermined ‘totems’ throughout each stage. The result is a title that functions as much like Lemmings as it does a god simulator — resulting in a wholly original experience.

As a tribe searches for the lands its ancestors once inhabited, you follow its trek through a variety of treacherous environments, enduring a bombardment of lava flows, tsunamis, floods and fires that threaten to destroy the villages it settles across each map. Luckily, you have the power to repurpose those elements as you like. With the powers of “The Breath” (your cursor) you can collect and deposit materials within the environment to aid the tribe’s progress through each level.

A sandbox game in a more literal sense, From Dust’s world is yours to manipulate to a remarkable degree. You can use sand to fill in the chasms that inhibit the tribe’s progress, use water to douse fires that encroach on villages or use molten lava, which can be solidified into rock walls, to redirect rivers and lava flows. These elements, combined with various power-up abilities like increasing the amount of material you can transport at once or evaporating all of the water in a level, let you convincingly alter and mold the game’s surroundings in innumerable ways.

Ensuring your powers do not go unchecked are the natural disasters which threaten to devastate your tribe. These obstacles force you to plan ahead with your solutions, not just to negate the immediate havoc wreaked by disasters but to combat nature’s more subtle forces. Adding to the game’s complexity is that all of the elements interact dynamically: rivers will slowly wash away sediment mounds while accumulated layers of cooled lava will raise the landscape. The game forces you to regularly maintain your defenses as your tribe makes its journey through the 13 territories of its story mode, a good 6 to 8 hour undertaking. Prolonging the experience is the Challenge mode, where you solve a series of 30 set pieces of pending doom as your best times are ranked on the online leaderboards.

Unfortunately, nature’s relentlessness isn’t your only hindrance. Your control over the tribesmen is limited to choosing the next totem to populate but their choice of paths is often flawed. If they aren’t taking the longest possible route, they’re constantly getting stuck on minor divots in the land, even if better paths are available to them. Another source of frustration is the camera. For whatever reason, there is no customizable zoom level: you’re stuck with the choice between being zoomed too far in, where you lack perspective, or too far out, where you lack detail. In a game that relies so heavily on having an enthralling and organic atmosphere, these technical quirks often distract, especially as they turn challenge into frustration during more heated gameplay moments.

Perspective problems aside, From Dust’s crisp visuals show that nature is almost as beautiful as it is treacherous. From the serene tropical environments to the violent volcanic eruptions and rushing tides, there’s no shortage of striking sights to relish as you ponder the limitations on your ability to control them. Complementing the locales is an aural blend of the tribe’s vocal and instrumental reactions to the real-time action. A blocked path to a traveler’s destination may warrant a call for help while a jungle ablaze may result in the unison shrieks of a panicked village. Particularly powerful are the rampant drum, pan flute and didgeridoo arrangements that resonate with the swell of oncoming tsunamis and other disasters. More so than other titles, From Dust’s eclectic sounds not just accompany, but greatly enhance its presentation.

From Dust impresses on a variety of fronts. Its constantly-evolving environments pose a healthy challenge to those who appreciate being forced to balance a calculated approach with reactive solutions (and an unhealthy challenge to those who don’t). The game’s mechanics are simple yet offer great opportunities for experimentation and ultimately, replay value. Finally, From Dust’s unique aesthetics and sound help further shape the experience. And so, it’s a tremendous shame that its gameplay flaws undermine the sense of immersion that the rest of the game tries so hard to create. In the end, From Dust offers a compelling and impressionable glimpse of what it is to be divine yet it never lets you overlook its humanity.

Graphics: 9
Sound: 9
Gameplay: 7
Creativity: 9.5
Replay Value/Game Length: 8
Final: 8.2 out of 10
Written by Brian Vines Write a User Review