Review: From Dust (PS3)

Title: From Dust
Format: PlayStation Network Download
Release Date: September 13, 2011
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Ubisoft Montpellier
Original MSRP: $14.99
ESRB Rating: E10+

“God games” have a pantheon all their own, with such classic titles as Populous and Black and White in their ranks. Unfortunately, worshippers for this genre have become rare as few recent games have handed you the reins of the divine. From Dust places the responsibilities of a god squarely on your shoulders, and while it may not be able to single-handedly revive the “god game” genre it is sure to elicit more than a few prayers for a sequel.

The goals of From Dust are deceptively simple: lead a wandering aboriginal society to various shrines so they can set up villages, once all the shrines have been colonized help them reach the exit. However, the devils are in the details, and actually getting your wandering tribes people where they need to be isn’t the easiest task.

The basic interface is a simple three-button process, you direct villagers to a point, suck up land or water, and release what you sucked up, allowing you to reshape the landscape at will. These mechanics will get you through the first few campaign missions without incident, though slowly the complexity begins to build and the genius of the game’s design becomes apparent. Eventually, certain shrines will bestow special powers upon you, e.g., giving water a jelly-like consistency allowing you to move it easily or putting out all the fires on the map for a limited time. Each level is an environmental puzzle, and whether it is the threat of a tsunami or a constantly erupting volcano they provide a perpetual challenge. Deciding which shrine to colonize in order to minimize the natural disasters around you is key. Misuse of your powers, hesitating too long on dealing with hazards, or simply dropping some water in an inopportune place, can cause you to fail a level extremely quickly. This framework compels you to perfect your techniques and propels you through the campaign.

From Dust provides minimal tutorials; all you get are text boxes that pop up as you encounter new elements. While some players may find this unforgiving I appreciated that the designers trusted their audience enough to give them all the necessary tools for a level and then let them tinker around to see what strategies work and which are doomed to failure. Knowing how the special powers interact with each other and the various environmental elements are key. For example, lava, once it has cooled, can form a helpful channel to send water away from a village, but drop that lava too close to vegetation and now you are dealing with a wildfire, which can end up being a much larger problem. This action/reaction system is very satisfying because it makes you feel as if each level could have been completed a hundred ways, with your solution being unique to your playthrough.

The only downside to playing god is that you can always enact your will as directly as you would like. When sending villagers scampering across the landscape they will often take a much more circuitous path then you’d like. Generally, this isn’t too big of an issue, but when a tsunami is about to hit I don’t want my villager that knows how to repel water taking the long way around a mountain chain.

At its core From Dust is a fundamentally fair game. If you fail a level it is probably because you made bad decisions or didn’t get the various elements of the level to work in concert. As a god you may be all powerful, but you aren’t all knowing, luckily coming up the learning curve is quite satisfying.

Rarely do “god games,” or any title that places a strong focus on realistic environments, wow me with visuals. After all, we, as gamers, have been trained to appreciate epic explosions and hyper-detailed car models, not how well rendered an island chain is or if a tsunami behaves accurately. Luckily From Dust surprises with gorgeous visuals. The landscape changes as you would expect with each type of landform, whether its lava, water, dirt, or barren ground, being visually distinct. Also, as you build villages and provide them with a water source, plants and animals return to the landscape, another small touch that makes you feel as if you are truly bringing the world to life.

The audio palette of From Dust is fairly minimalistic. Sound effects play a much greater role than background music, as they help to indicate when major events like floods or fires are occurring. This is especially helpful when you are zoomed in and toiling away at one end of a map, while a wildfire rages at the other end of a level, the few quick shouts of the endangered villagers are all you need to help guide your attention to the pressing threat. The aboriginal dialog that bracket each level is performed well, but could easily have been done as a straight up voice over in English without losing any of its flair or atmosphere.

From Dust makes you feel powerful, you guide an entire civilization towards prosperity, modify the landscape to your designs, and wield tremendous abilities that are truly godly. The sandbox you get to wield these powers in is stunning, with realistic settings that evoke awe. While anyone interested in “god games” or environmental puzzles should definitely pick up From Dust, it deserves to be on every gamer’s radar as it represents the potential rebirth of a genre. While not absolutely perfect, From Dust certainly is divine enough to add some new converts to the long dormant “god game” genre. Hallelujah!


Written by Justin Spielmann

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