From Dust Review
By Jeremy Vancleave |
God games are usually all about power. They give you omnipotence and the choice to do with it what you will – be good or evil, vengeful or merciful, kind or cruel. They give you power over your worshippers, the ability to command, help or destroy them. They court player fantasies.
From Dust is a god game in a different sense. You are not all-powerful; instead, you only have control over the land. You're able to shape and reshape it by scooping up the earth and water and magma in undulating orbs and depositing it elsewhere, creating bridges across channels, islands out of cooled lava and lakes in the middle of the desert. The people of the tribe under your care rely on you to make their harsh world habitable, but you have no influence over what they do.
More pertinently, though, you have no control over the cruel forces of nature that indifferently sweep across the map, wiping out villages with brush fires or drowning the entire population in a tsunami. Unless your fantasies involve struggling pitifully against natural disaster, this is definitely not a game that caters to them.
Watch the From Dust video review
From Dust is hugely impressive, both technically and visually. Nature does its own thing over time; the landscape changes and evolves dynamically, like a living diorama. Water sources in the desert create lakes, which in turn spill over sand dunes in tiny rivulets, eventually becoming a tangled network of tiny streams. Magma and water behave entirely naturally – it's the most realistic nature simulation I've ever seen, albeit exaggeratedly fast and aggressive. A spewing volcano left unchecked will build a bridge of cooled rock for itself as its magma cools, hissing, in the sea. You spend a lot of time redirecting lava flows or powerful rivers by building dams of rock or sand, helping vegetation to spread across formerly barren surfaces.
If anything, this is a better-looking game on PC. The slight fuzziness of the Xbox Live Arcade version is gone, making rock and landscapes look much sharper, especially from a zoomed-out perspective. The liquids behave no differently, though – the physics model has been carried across unmolested, but it hasn't been improved, either. The only graphical disappointment is the lack of a v-sync lock – there's still plenty of evidence of tearing.
The eventual aim in From Dust is to settle those little tribespeople all over their former land, helping them to rebuild their lost and forgotten civilisation and culture. Guide them to totems and they'll set up villages around them. These totems grant you limited godly powers, like the ability to jellify water, letting you carve out a Moses-at-the-Red-Sea-style passage across the sea floor. Later tools let you temporarily put out fires, dry up water, or suck matter up into a black orb to destroy it. The tribespeople themselves can learn how to repel water and fire from their settlements by touching magical stones dotted around the map, ensuring their long-term safety.
Once each totem is populated a gateway opens up to the next map – which is invariably far more dangerous. This tribe does have an unfortunate habit of choosing the most inhospitable places imaginable for colonisation. At the beginning they pick rather nice beaches and valleys to settle, where all you have to do is ward off the occasional high wave and build sand-bridges across bodies of water. By the end, though, they're emerging from their Sacred Gates into rocky hillsides tormented alternately by violent volcanic eruptions or killer tsunamis every minute, or onto sparse rocky outcrops in the middle of the sea, or literally inside the crater of a volcano.
It's often a race against the clock to get the tribespeople settled in before nature inevitably encroaches on their comfort. The game layers on complexity quite gently, usually introducing one new power or element per map. About halfway through, when the tone of the game changes and the struggle to survive becomes truly fierce, you're introduced to exploding plants that punch holes through walls, fire trees that erupt in flames every few minutes, and plants that periodically explode in a shower of water, which you can place around villages to put out brush fires. These extra elements add an additional layer of unpredictability and complexity that is not always welcome, though; From Dust is at its best when it's just challenging you to control the elements, playing with earth, water and fire and watching the landscape evolve.
With its primarily cursor-based control system, From Dust felt a lot like a PC game even when it was first released on XBLA, so it doesn't come as a huge surprise that having a mouse in your hand makes things like camera control and cursor placement more precise and natural. (With a gamepad, it controls exactly the same as it does on the Xbox, should you wish to play it that way.) The mouse doesn't actually solve the minor problems that From Dust had anyway – there are still niggles over village placement later on, where sometimes the game convinces itself that there's too much water in an area when there is none to be seen. It does, however, make it easier to zoom out and see what's going on, and consequently it's easier to micromanage whilst zoomed out.
From Dust can make you feel quite existential. No matter how hard you try to push back against the towering seas and the sputtering volcanoes that threaten your tribe, many of them will die. It makes you think about the power and ruthlessness of nature. You're never penalised if the tribespeople meet an untimely demise – after all, it's hardly your fault – but losing villages takes away your powers, and without them you are quite, quite helpless.
Powerlessness leads to frustration, of course, and the sheer brutality of From Dust's closing levels is dispiriting. There are multiple solutions to any situation, and generally nothing that you do will irrevocably ruin your chances of succeeding, but the later maps rely more on time management (and a dash of luck) than on ingenuity. The cursor's occasional fiddliness compounds that frustration. In the context of the whole game, though, the difficulty is justified; this is a true struggle against the elements, and figuring out your approach to From Dust's greatest challenges extends the game's lifespan, too.
Each level challenges you to cultivate rather than merely survive, rewarding you with ferocious, tightly time-limited one-shot challenge maps and textual tribal memories if you manage to spread life and vegetation across an entire map. Creating a stable enough ecology involves diverting lava and water in harmless directions over the long term – in other words, controlling nature rather than crisis-managing your way from disaster to disaster.
It's this replayability that really adds value to From Dust, more than the challenge mode. Because it's such a pleasure to watch, and thanks to the emergent nature of the gameplay and nature simulation, replaying levels and experimenting with different approaches is enduringly compelling. That initial novelty of moulding the land never wears off.