A loving hybrid of Populous and Lemmings, From Dust is a slick, strange adventure that falls somewhere in between the Puzzle and God Game genres. That unusual pairing is matched with equally unique visuals and gameplay; tiny tribesmen with Katamari masks mill around as you, some sort of landscaping demigod, rearrange the soil, water and lava.
Each level tasks you with getting your tribesmen to three different totems scattered around the map and activating them, which then unlocks an exit. In between you and your goals though, are the unfeeling, jerkass forces of nature. Your most basic power is the ability to absorb and expel each of the elements, which allows you to open up paths to the totems and protect your villagers from threats. Dump a bunch of dirt into the water and you’ll create a makeshift bridge for your tribesmen, dump some water on a lava flow and you’ll temporarily stop it from blocking your path.
Elemental threats periodically assault the tribesmen and their villages with tsunamis, flooding, lava flows and fires. Learning the specifics of each map is essential, as From Dust is much more about prevention than immediate action. Each threat has to be prepared for well in advance, as once a tsunami is on its way there’s not a whole lot you can do, though you’re not totally helpless.
Once they’ve been activated by the tribesmen, each totem unlocks a new “Breath”, an additional power that allows you to manipulate the elements in a special way. Each level offers a different set of Breaths, and you can bet your ass you’ll need to use them to complete the map. The Breath powers drastically increase your ability to manipulate the landscape, though they have cooldowns you’ll need to pay attention to. Use that “Put Out Fires” ability too early and you’ll have the pleasure of watching the village you didn’t save get roasted.
Learning the interplay between the different elements is the game’s most rewarding aspect; lava turns to rock when it’s touched by water, but burns any soil that has growth on it, water erodes soil but evaporates when it touches lava, essentially creating a big geologic game of rock paper scissors. From Dust's stand out physics engine really captures the volume of these elements, and you become aware of the fact that relocating some soil or water to another location will likely have some sort of effect down the road, catastrophically altering a flow of lava or possibly damming a river poised to flood a village.
Your tiny AI tribesmen are, to an extent, expendable which is good thing given their frequently frustrating pathfinding AI. From Dust gives you no direct control over the tribesmen, and while they generally manage to keep themselves alive, you’ll inevitably have a number of them bumble into a torrential river or lava wave. Once you’ve clicked a location, the tribesmen automatically pathfind towards it, but even slight variations in elevation will cause them to abandon a route entirely.
The later levels present the most flagrant problems with this, as the tribesmen have a hard time navigating the hastily assembled paths you have to fabricate from scratch. The imperfections lead to them picking inexplicably long routes during time sensitive operations, arriving at totems just in time to get swept away by a wave of magma. Being able to manually set paths for the tribesmen, or at least move them closer to their destinations, would have helped to overcome the irksome later levels.
Undoubtedly, From Dust’s biggest shortcoming is the frustrating difficulty of its later levels, which rely much too heavily on trial and error. Cruelly flooding the map after you’ve acquired a certain totem, or launching a surprise lava flow from a previously dormant location is extremely frustrating, as once these surprises are launched it’s extremely hard to react to them. The final 5 maps all required numerous restarts after 30-40 minutes of play, and by the end of the game I just expected the first few dry runs to be hopeless reconnaissance.
The irritating nature of the final levels is exacerbated by the game’s control scheme, which is fine for for the most part, but struggles to cope with the precision and speed required for the final levels. I constantly found myself grabbing the wrong element in times of need, the targeting reticule autoselecting a tiny puddle of water I couldn't see, or one of the microscopic trees that litter the later levels. The limited amount of dirt/water/lava you're allowed to carry at once makes dealing with the fast pace of the endgame even more hectic. Imagine having to move out of your house but you're only allowed to carry a single item at a time, sure it'd take forever but at least you'd have the time to get it all done. Now imagine the same arbitrary rule, except this time your house is on fire.
From Dust offers 35 unlockable challenge levels, most of which limit what elements you can manipulate. These levels streamline the game and put the focus squarely on the puzzle aspects. Their short durations and clear objectives help to reduce the trial and error that plagues the story mode, and offers a nice alternative to the sometimes sprawling story levels. Irritatingly, most of the challenge levels have to be unlocked by completing the story mode.
From Dust’s engine is brilliant, and the seamless way in which the elements interplay is impressive. Watching the gradual build up of volcanic rock slowly alter the path of a lava flow, or the slow trickle of water down gaps in a makeshift dam is satisfying in a way that has no real analogue. Games like FarCry 2 may have technically excellent environments, but they’re still in the background, From Dust makes the environment the centerpiece, and in that respect it’s a ringing success.
From Dust is a singular experience that deserves a lot of credit for presenting something entirely unique. For gamers looking for something well off the beaten path, From Dust is absolutely worth checking out. Its lush graphics, slick visual design and clever environmental engine are the big draws, but it’s unfortunately bogged down by excessively frustrating later levels founded on trial and error, and irksome AI that undermines the precision the endgame demands.
Jul 25, 2011