From Dust – Another ‘Another World’?

August 14, 2011 § Leave a comment

*EDIT*- From Dust, it has been discovered, is the latest Ubisoft title to require online authentication every time you start it up. As such, this review now only covers the Xbox 360 version. Neither of which you should buy, however, as its way past time we all showed Ubisoft just what we think of their crippling DRM.

I repeat, do not buy this game.

Of all the games announced at last years E3, Eric Chahi’s ‘From Dust’ looked to be something rather special. Formed from a mixture of Populous-style gameplay, and a true sand-box; the ability to reshape the world as the player saw fit, attempting to keep the fledgling tribe of the world alive as the very earth itself turned into the neighbour from hell – it looked pretty good.

Released on Xbox Live Arcade last month, and to be released very shortly on PC (17th August), it has received mixed appraisal. So, I donned my godly robe, grew a beard, and raised a few mountains in search of the truth…

The game is as simple as you like: You have a number of little masked chaps who are by turns useful, and idiots; and you are their god/landscaper/gardener. You have two basic actions – pick up, and drop… thats about it. A stage requires you to capture various stone totems by creating and manipulating the terrain so that there is a passable route for your worshippers to reach them, before getting a certain number of them to the levels exit. This can be as simple as dropping sand into a river to create a bridge, or re-routing said river by gouging chunks out of the landscape.

It gets slightly more complex in later stages, with the inclusion of lava, and inexplicably limited sand to use – you are a god, but you have been neglecting your cardio, it seems, and are unable to pick up anything but sand and water. The totems grant various powers, which further complicate things too; one level has you attempting to reach a particular totem which grants a ‘water repel’ spell, all the while a timer ticks down to a rather large tsunami. Too slow, and your little village gets swept away by a very convincing looking wall of sea. Unfortunately, stages like this one are rarely fun, and on a few occasions properly unfair.

This is slightly nit-picky on my part, but it is a bit frustrating at times, doubly so when using an Xbox 360 pad – the manoeuvres required for some stages cries out for the precision of a mouse, also the in-game camera is pretty poor, making placing your handful of sand more difficult than it has any need to be.

It is a fun game, at least as fun as any next-generation Lemmings can be. The tech allowing you to treat the world as if its one big ball of plasticine is beautifully done, and the water-flow mechanics are a joy to behold – redirecting a river, and watching the unbalanced water pick and stumble its way down the side of a mountain looks realistic, satisfying and slightly bladder-upsetting. Just like the real thing! The scale of the world feels well realised too, the tsunami level in particular; watching a several-hundred-foot wall of water crash heavily around your little village, being held at bay by an invisible shield… its breathtaking.

But, regardless of its technical achievement, its a missed opportunity on almost every level. The comparisons with Populous and Black & White are both pointless and flawed: this is NOT a god sim. Yes, the control method is reminiscent of B&W, and the styling and various powers may hark back to the original god-games of Bullfrog’s, but From Dust has more in common with a modern arcade puzzle game than any of those. The open and procedural sandbox most of us expected is nowhere to be seen. Instead, the game is broken up into various stages that have no significance on the next. And worse than this, you simply don’t care about these villagers; you can zoom in and examine your little tribe, but they lack any sort of characterisation outside the masks and a few incidental details that are irrelevant to you, and pointless to the game. Its almost like there was a vague intention to flesh the little guys out at some point in development, but it was cut at the last moment. As it stands, they are simply part of the objective.

The tragedy is, the game’s dynamic would have worked really well as an open-world sandbox; if the tribes had a little more AI outside “go here” and “capture this”, they might have even rivalled Black & White’s charming little chaps. The flexibility of the terrain-bending skills would have allowed the players to twist the world into whatever shape they pleased, and with a few random or dynamic environmental disasters (a volcano erupting, or a tsunami for example), preserving the tribes and their settlements might have meant something, and failing to protect them would have had an impact on your world.

As it stands, if you mess up, all you have to do is restart the level. Just like Lemmings…

Despite all this, From Dust is 1200MSP on the Xbox, and £11.99 on Steam. At that price, its hard to say “don’t buy it”. I have had a fair amount of fun with the game, despite my heart crying out for a more open mode to immerse myself in. Dodgy controls aside, it is a fair few hours worth of fun, and the tech almost makes it worth the asking price. If you’re looking for a decent arcade puzzler at a reasonable price, this ain’t too shabby.

If its a god-sim you’re after, you may as well move along, there’s nothing to see here.

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