Developer: Ubisoft Montpellier
Genre: Godgame, Puzzler
ESRB Rating: E10
Release Date: XBLA, July 27, 2011
PC, August 17, 2011
PSN, September 2011
Platform: Xbox 360, PS3, PC
Designed by the oft-famed Eric Chahi, From Dust is Ubisoft Montpellier’s take on the god game. The XBLA version was released July 27th, and I was definitely eager to get my hands on it, considering its promise of Populous reborn. While definitely playing with the themes of the god game, and touting itself as such, From Dust has little to do with open world gameplay, and while it definitely delivers as a puzzle game, leaves little for those seeking an open world experience.
Visually speaking, From Dust is a beautiful game. Even being a downloadable title, the game brings rich environments and epic vistas to the table. The real glory here are the water physic’s engines, which deliver such a realistic natural environment you sometimes forget you’re playing a game. Until, of course, you zoom in to the cheese-headed people that populate this little world. Water, lava, even sand all perform in a realistic way that combine to create the illusion of grand scale in a small game.
It’s hard to talk about From Dust without bringing up the grandfather of all god games, Populous. The trick of it is, at its core From Dust is not a god game. Each stage provides you with a set of challenges to conquer, all of them having to do with eeking out survival on a barren and hostile landscape. Your challenge is to progress mankind through a series of environmental puzzles so that they can move on to the next stage in their destiny. The trick is that the population are sort of dim witted, and require a lot of handholding as they attempt to run across lava, through flood zones and up cliff faces. I have to assume that the low level of intelligence of the AI is intentional, since it adds another layer of difficulty to the game coupled with the environmental timers themselves.
You play The Breath, the amorphous force created by the shaman that can control the elements. The controls are very simple: You pick things up, and you put them down again. As your men settle their villages next to different totems, these totems will give you additional abilities such as Jellify Water and Put out Fire. These abilities serve as your toolkit for overcoming obstacles like a buried totem or a tsunami, but you are still using your very simple controls to complete your tasks. Because the controls are so intuitive this game has very little learning curve. Pretty much any type of gamer can pick up the controller and start playing.
From Dust is a game that on the surface looks like an open world sandbox game, but at its core plays more like a traditional puzzler. Sure there is actual sand, and each stage can be considered a box, but each stage has not only limits on the area with which you can play, but also an environmental timer – a point when you run out of resources or you run out of room or time or something else equally important. The stages aren’t necessarily linear in their format, but often times the abilities line up in such a way that the simplest path is also the easiest. Pick up this power up to progress to the second one which will make reaching the ending gate that much easier. Like I said, there isn’t a predetermined path, but rather a highly suggested one, and a definite limit on the amount of time you have to get your men to the end portal.
From the marketing and the game demos I saw of From Dust, even the genre of the game itself, I expected a completely different style of gameplay. While the idea of an environmental puzzler is novel and enjoyable, this game suffers from an identity crisis. It wants very much to be the spiritual sequel to Populous, but rather ends up being a new sort of puzzle game. If it had owned up to its real genre, I’m not sure that Ubisoft would have been as excited to market the title, so maybe pretending to be a god game is enough. After all, that pretension got me to purchase the game.
The other confusing element of this self-proclaimed god game is the story. Story mode is very basic: You move your people through the stages, establishing villages, growing trees if you have the land and the time, learning stories about your people, and moving them on in their search of what they call the Ancients. In actuality, From Dust is a game about the lack of gods, rather than a god game. The Breath is not God, it’s the power that results from man taking matters into his own hands once the gods have left them. Men are simply trying to find their deities and get back to the way things were. It’s the existential search for purpose, wrapped up in a small 3D puzzle game.
The story is told through a brief introduction by the Shaman at the beginning of each stage, as well as through pieces of supplemental lore you can find in each stage. The end result of telling a story like this is that it ends up being entirely superficial. You don’t need to know anything about this story to play the game, and often times if you blink or look away as a stage loads you will miss the premise entirely. The issue I have with a cursory story in a game like this is that the mode itself called “Story Mode.” Perhaps this is just one more example of the From Dust identity crisis, but if you bill your main game mode as connected to a story, then in my opinion that story should matter on some level within the level design of the game. With this game, however, the story is more of an excuse for getting to the fun part than anything else.
On the subject of bugs, From Dust is fairly rock solid. Only once or twice did I have any glitches at all during my playthrough, and most of that had to do with AI forgetting where it was going, not understanding the path I had created for it, or completely going in the opposite direction. I did have one small issue with the Infinite Earth power up, where when placing on water it decided to place water instead – a dangerous proposition when you are attempting to stem the tides of a flood. These issues were small, and did not hamper gameplay, but did keep my play experience from being a perfect one.
Identity crisis aside, From Dust is a delightful, if limited, environmental puzzler. No, it is not a sandbox title, nor is it a god game. Rather, it is an anti-god game, whose themes illustrate the struggle of modern man to find religious identity in a world threatening to undermine their very existence. The stages are fun, the story cursory, and the challenge modes come off as more annoying that enjoyable. It’s definitely worth playing. Just don’t expect the epic scale it seems to promise and you’ll have a fun time. Just be careful about placing lava near your villages -- trust me on this one.