Few games in recent years have been as unique and creative as From Dust. I rarely ever played a console real-time-strategy game that has measured up to From Dust‘s ability to create complexity while still utilizing simple controls. It is also one of the most polished games on XBLA, which impresses me even more knowing that the game only cost about $15. It is an excellent blend of atmosphere, puzzle-solving, polish and creativity that will draw you in and make you forget that you have other things you need to get done.
Even comparing it to other games leaves you with another challenge. It is a real-time-strategy game, but it is more akin to something like Sim City than most recent games, pitting you against an opposing army or other military units. In From Dust, you play as a guardian deity called “The Breath.” You are charged with protecting and aiding tribal nomads as they seek enlightenment and survival, while following in the path of The Ancients — a quest as mysterious as it is difficult. As The Breath, you can pick up and move many of the natural forces in the territory, such as water, sand and lava. Each element has its unique properties that you can utilize to aid your people. Water can be drained from a lake or taken from the ocean to put out fires. Sand will settle fairly evenly and allows for trees and other vegetation to spread, helping your people. My personal favorite was lava, which can be used to build sturdy, solid walls.
Being creative in your use of each element is what helps you accomplish your goals, whether the goal is building a new village, aiding a shaman in collecting information, or building or destroying a wall. While there are no enemies on the map for your people to contend with, there are constant threats that could sweep up and harm your domain. Those threats come from the same elements you are trying to utilize. Your people could drown and your villages could be washed away during a tsunami, flooding or tides. The lava that you are using from a nearby erupting volcano to keep out the tide could start a fire and burn your village to the ground. Sand can even lead to catastrophe, since it supports trees that can catch on fire. There is a constant onslaught of threats that could lead to the demise of everything you’ve worked for. There are no words to express the sadness and frustration that comes from spending almost two hours in a territory and then witnessing all your villages burn to the ground because of something insignificant you were neglecting.
While From Dust is a fantastic achievement, it is not without its faults. While The Breath does protect people and issue them some commands, you are limited on how to control them. You can send them on a mission to an altar to receive enlightenment, or to a totem pole to found a village, but you can’t tell them how to get there or make them stand in a specific place. This can lead to some frustration, since from time to time they will decide to take an extremely dangerous, but shorter route rather than a longer, much safer route. Sometimes they will have difficulty realizing that they can’t climb up a cliff and will demand that you build them a bridge. Sometimes though, you cross your fingers, hoping that they will make it across the open before the nearby volcano erupts, when they find a path you hadn’t considered that is little more than a stroll through the palm trees. Overall, it leads to more frustration than relief, but I guess a guardian deity can’t take away free will.
Each level in the main quest provides a new and difficult challenge for you to understand and work around. An active volcano on the map is a challenge, but gives you a great deal of freedom by giving you lava to help sculpt the environment. I was actually excited at first to find volcanoes in the new territories because of what options they gave me. I said at first because one level was in the crater of a giant volcano. After that level, I’m not so keen on lava anymore. In fact, I kind of hate it now. I watched a lot of my people burn to a crisp, as their village was consumed by lava before we escaped that hell-hole.
Beyond the main quest to follow The Ancients, there are also 30 challenge maps that push you to utilize the experience you gained in the main quests. These challenges are timed and usually limit what elements you are allowed to manipulate, leading you to think outside your normal way of solving problems. During one challenge map, I was frustrated because I couldn’t stop a forest fire with only lava. The objective was to save three villages. Eventually I noticed that there were four villages on the map and, oddly enough, the key was to intentionally burn one of the villages to the ground. Even a deity can’t save everyone.
In case you haven’t realized, From Dust is an excellent game. Go buy it. Even if you don’t play many RTSs, this is a game you will enjoy. The price is low. There is an excellent amount of gameplay. It is an original idea. I want to be done with this review, because I want to play it more. Go buy it.
The Good: Excellent puzzles that can be solved with multiple methods.
The Bad: Not being able to pick elements up fast enough.
The Ugly: Watching your villages burn to the ground and being unable to stop it.
A Second Opinion
Chances are few of us have experienced a game quite like From Dust before. The games most comparable to its play style are actually 10-20 years old at this point. When I first looked at the lineup for XBLA’s Summer of Arcade, From Dust seemed to be that awkward kid mulling in the corner. Whatever divine power whispered in my ear to persuade me to make the purchase, however, was not a malicious one. It had been a while since I played around with a sandbox game, and the game’s description as such eventually won over my draw to the other titles.
In From Dust, you take control of The Breath, a god-like power summoned by the tribesmen to aid them in their pursuit of “The Ancients.” As The Breath, you start out with the ability to manipulate two facets of the world your tribesmen inhabit: soil and water. You start by performing fairly simple actions, first absorbing, then moving and expelling one of these substances. You also can call your tribesmen to specific landmarks, which will cause them to inhabit an area and build their village, give them the ability to ward off the elements, or progress to the next stage. Very soon you also handle lava as well and some plants that carry specific environmental effects.
Your powers are extended beyond that of a celestial dump truck by taking control of totems left behind by The Ancients. These totems act as the grounds for a village and also give you additional powers over the water and earth, or simply magnify your power to absorb. As far as control mechanics go, that’s about it. It’s a very simple combination of pick up-put down added with the occasional superpower that will save you from a tidal wave, give you all the soil you could want or speed you up. These abilities are put to use to guide your tribe to first inhabit an island and then move on to the next.
The puzzle/challenge aspect of the game comes from Mother Nature’s will to go where she wants, when she wants, however she wants. After a few levels of introducing you to your mechanics you are thrown into environments where the obstacles between you and your passage to the next area begin to intensify. At first your biggest worry is how to redirect a river enough to create a land bridge for the tribe to pass. I use the word “redirect” here because you definitely won’t be stopping the water’s flow anytime soon. Strong tides, volcanoes oozing lava streams, torrential rains and even a breathing earth (one very strange level) will all combine to make maneuvering your tribe through a task you will remember.
Once you manage to help them survive being inside a damn volcano with flooding rain pouring in every five minutes, you are rewarded with a true sandbox level where you have absolute control over the elements. You can draw up earth, place water sources to decide where a river will flow, erupt a volcano or call a tidal wave all on a whim. The gameplay doesn’t end here though. Each level you’ve conquered unlocks a challenge-mode level, which will keep you playing even after you’ve had your fill of sending tidal wave after tidal wave onto your tribe.
While the first half of the game seems to be entirely tutorial, the later levels require you to actually put in some thought and react quickly on occasion. I found I was more likely to restart a level the further I went in, which to me suggests a great job of difficulty progression. The final area of the game had me frustrated to the point of needing to turn the game off for a few hours before coming back to it. Honestly I think it’s great that a game can do that to me. The fact that I am so frustrated means it’s challenging, but also that it doesn’t seem out of reach.
The mechanic From Dust has put together works extremely well for its simplicity. The controls are intuitive and before long you’ll find yourself comfortably zooming around the terrain finding soil to move. The artifacts, which you can have your tribe fetch to allow them to stave off either water or fire, can look rather silly, but really it makes sure the gameplay is progressing and giving you new challenges rather than doing the same puzzle 20 times.
The physics of the game are put together well enough to teach you a healthy respect for the power and determination of both lava and water (if you don’t have it already). One of the aspects I really enjoyed was that despite my ability to form some plan as soon as I looked at the level, I could quickly be forced to reconsider that plan. The game doesn’t need some random gimmick to suddenly change your terrain, but rather the way your environment is changing seems natural and responsive to where you’re trying to build an earth wall or where you diverted that lava’s flow to. Except for one occasion, the game didn’t throw something at me partway through the level other than what it announced it would at the beginning. Everything else was a reaction to my own machinations.
If you buy games for their story, their character development and plots then this game probably isn’t for you. The story is delivered vaguely by a narrator at the beginning of each level saying a few things about chasing The Ancients. There is a “memories” section that contains a little background on the tribe, the elements, and some animals, but it isn’t what drives the story. The game works fine without it to be honest, but if it’s something you need to feel immersed you’re going to feel left out.
However, the art for this game is incredible. The terrain and the elements are all worth taking time to zoom in on and admire. In fact, doing just that is the reason my village caught fire once. Water is something I’ve heard people rave about since back when I got my Nintendo 64. People want water that looks and acts realistically. I played around with the water a good deal and let me say it does look amazing and it does respond in a way that seems natural. If you’re someone who enjoys a game’s art and wants to be drawn in to just admire it, this game will not disappoint you. The one negative thing about the art in this game is the tribal mask art. I’m not overly concerned with how they aren’t ornate or grandiose, but really they only seem to be there to circumvent drawing convincing or varied faces. They also dehumanize the tribesmen a bit so I don’t really mind (in other words: I might enjoy) when they drown or burn.
My favorite part of this game is how very human it makes me feel. Regardless of my abilities and overwhelming power in this game I am still very much subject to nature’s will. I laughed at myself the first time I received the “infinite earth” ability and began turning two small islands into one vast one. As the level started out with a small amount of earth and a lot of water I had ignored a fire tree sitting in the middle of the map. As I went on feeling high and mighty with my geomancy, I overlooked the lousy little plant. True to its name the fire tree sparked a small flame and while I was looking at the exit portal, my villages (and all of my fabricated glory) were being turned to ash. It meant I just wasted about 45 minutes on the level and I absolutely loved it.
The Good: Intuitive gameplay, feeling of power (I create earth!) and accomplishment.
The Bad: Why cant they just climb the damn cliff? I don’t have time to build a road for them while I save them from something far more devastating — molten rock.
The Ugly: I really love watching the exact same cutscene between all the levels! It makes me feel like I’m a cackling malevolent god stuffing them into a dim, rat-infested hole over and over and they have to find a new way out!