Most people would admit that they’ve had daydreams about being a god or ruling over a world of some sort, in one fashion or another. Things would run the way they’d like and hopefully their intentions would be genuine and innocent. Since we don’t have that opportunity, Ubisoft Montpellier went hard to work at creating something similar in video game form. The finished product is From Dust, a game where you get to control the elements to help a primitive tribal civilization spread, protect itself and prosper. Let the god-like daydreams flourish in virtual space.
The game starts off with a civilization struggling to remember the ways of its ancestors. All of the important spells, information and memories that their past relatives used to survive and prosper must be discovered once again. In order to do this, they must spread across the land over the course of thirteen different stages, or maps as they’re referred to here. Unfortunately, the elements aren’t interested in making it easy, with rivers and lakes having taken their toll on pathways, tsunamis threatening villages and wild fires wreaking havoc on anything that they can spread to. That’s where you come in as the almighty element known as the Breath.
Conjured within the first few moments of gameplay, the Breath is a magical force that has the power to manipulate the world for better or worse. With its abilities, players can absorb and release elemental items such as earth, water, rock, helpful plants and molten lava. It’s all done not only to revitalize a rundown landscape, but also to make pathways for the people who are trying to make it habitable once again. Like Lemmings, the little guys follow your orders to go from one pillar to another, setting up villages along the way. If they get stuck, you’ll hear about it and must quickly jump into action before they’re swept downstream and your plans are altered. Of course, their villages must also be protected from incoming natural disaster, such as a dangerous tsunami.
With the ease of pressing the left trigger to absorb and the right trigger to release, players can completely change the world they’re faced with saving. Need to stop water from overflowing over a rock wall? Add lava to it to strengthen its resolve. Water getting in your way? Divert it or stop its source stream. The game world is like an environmental puzzle that needs your solution to get back to its once beautiful self. This includes the need for changes to be made before vital vegetation grows back, highlighted by a meter at the bottom left-hand part of the screen. Completely revitalizing all of the plant life on one map means you’ve essentially aced the level.
All of the aforementioned pathways and settlements are route objectives towards the end goal. Everything you’re doing is to get a certain amount of the miniscule little villagers to the exit point, where they’ll make their journey towards the next proposed settlement map. Memories are earned along the way via level and secondary objective completion, with world altering powers becoming available as you inhabit and explore new areas. Creating new settlements and visiting magical stones will earn you the use of certain abilities, such as the chance to momentarily turn water into jelly, get rid of fires or systematically evaporate all of the water on a map for a certain period of time. Arguably the most important of these is the ancient spell that the tribes learn, which allows them to somehow put a barrier up that protects their villages from incoming waves.
Implementing longevity into the experience are unlockable challenge maps. Throughout your campaign, they’ll unlock via progression, secondary objective completion and when you introduce enough flora to the environment. There are approximately thirty different ones to wrack your brain over, as each one has its own limited amount of mechanics needed to be put to use to solve a problem such as a fire or flood. It’s a nice addition because the different tasks present you with new and creative problems to solve using its game mechanics, adding hours of gameplay with their innovation and relatively high difficulty. Incentive is there to keep going as full leaderboard support is intact, allowing gamers to see (and possibly conquer) the best scores from their friends list.
While reading this, you’re probably thinking that all of this sounds pretty simple. It’s not. From Dust is a challenging and very strategic puzzle game. One wrong move can put you quite far behind, sometimes forcing a restart on missions that can take a decent amount of time to complete. It starts off relatively simple, but ramps up its scale and challenge with a vengeance as you progress. Some will appreciate the challenge and all of the necessary thought, but others may not. It’s the thinking man’s video game, with tons of complexity and difficulty to boot. After all, it’s not easy being a god.
Unfortunately, there are a couple pretty major caveats within this production. One is that sometimes the game can be a bit too convoluted, making it difficult to spot where you went wrong with so much going on at once. If you make one mistake, it can set off a chain reaction of devastation within the virtual environment.
The tribesmen are under complete control of the game’s artificial intelligence, which is something that can also drive you nuts at certain points, as they’ll pick overly-convoluted routes and/or get stuck without noticing an easy route around their problem. You really need to stay on top of things as micromanaging plays a huge role in bringing this society back to its former and unfortunately destroyed glory. It’s all very objective-based, allowing for very little freedom, so keep that in mind.
At your disposal are two different cameras – one close and the other way up high – which do a decent job, though they do have the odd problem. With the landscapes being as large as they are, it’s sometimes easy to lose sight of your little tribesmen. It can take a bit to find their location once again, especially if they’re at a starting point that you’ve zoomed away from in an attempt to survey the task ahead. The developers tried to combat this issue by implementing a trail system, with a floating idol that guides some to their objectives. However, though the white and red (used to highlight an impass) paths are easy to spot, the little guys running them still aren’t at times.
It’s certainly impressive seeing how the elements react naturally, and it’s obvious that a lot of work went into perfecting this system. The world really works in natural ways. However, it’s also easy to alter it a bit more than you intend to, which can have disastrous consequences. Don’t press the triggers in too much or it may set you back. Maps get progressively larger as they go on and sometimes require a lot of alterations before the end goal is met. Many things need to be changed in specific manners, which are sometimes too vague or difficult to achieve – especially when dealing with rock. Due to this, there’s too much trial and error involved, with the relatively primitive artificial intelligence adding problems.
The look of the world is diverse and colourful with the opportunity for progressive alteration – all of which is shown in real time. Watching it in motion is pretty cool, seeing how the elements play together like they do in our real-life world. Placed sand will drift away and erode like you’d expect it to, forcing some realistic issues and thought provoking difficulty. The animations themselves are the visual treat here and graphically speaking, it looks pretty nice.
From Dust utilizes some very nice sounding environmental audio effects, which accurately depict the sounds of water, volcanoes erupting and the other elements that are in play. It’s somewhat tranquil in the way that the sound effects mix with relaxing music, though it must be said that the tribesmen yelling at you whenever they have an issue can be quite annoying. Mother Earth is an unpredictable force and it’s something that we humans live with every day. The development team were able to do a great job in depicting her beauty and her dangerous powers, with both the audio and visuals in this game.
Despite having some issues, From Dust is a pretty competent and decent downloadable title. Its environmental effects are impressive and there’s a good amount of gameplay included within for its fifteen dollar price tag. Strategy fans and the thinkers out there will certainly find an interesting experience here, though this game is not for everyone. It’s not as accessible or as interactive as something like Harvest Moon or Animal Crossing and is, in fact, quite different from those popular series. If you’re feeling like entering a complex and thought provoking world, then this one is for you.
From Dust is a thought provoking title with tons of gameplay for strategists and thinkers. It also features some impressive elemental animations and quite a bit of challenge. It might not be for everyone, but it's definitely worth a look.