From Dust Review (Xbox 360)

Game Review: From Dust (Xbox 360)
Release: July 27th, 2011
Genre: God game
Developer: Ubisoft Montpellier/Eric Chahi
Available Platforms: Xbox 360, PC (to be released on August 17th), PSN (“September”)
Players: 1
MSRP: 1200 MSP, $14.99
ESRB Rating: E10+

In From Dust you play God. Literally. A small tribe of a lost people needs help, and you are the one to give it to them. You are “The Breath”, the answer to their prayers and calls for aid. You take control of a disembodied power that can move, create, and destroy matter.

The nomadic tribe you help is in search of The Ancients, their ancestors who settled the land long ago. As you go through the game you uncover more of their memories to eventually find the mystery of where The Ancients went.

The glowing black and yellow cursor is how "The Breath" is represented on screen

The glowing black and yellow cursor is how "The Breath" is represented on screen

From Dust’s main attraction is the impressive simulation of matter interaction.  Water flows and acts realistically. If you drop a glob into a crater some will splash out as the water laps against the edges till it settles, and waves will cause water to slightly flow over land and into craters.  While simulation is not occurring for individual particles of water, it is still very impressive. It acts every way you expect it to. If I suck up some water from the middle of a lake, will it cause the rest to recess into the hole and lower the water level? Yes. Every question I asked myself came back yes, and it was very satisfying to see such a deep simulation in a game. The physics for moving and placing earth and lava are also equally satisfying. You can create earth by dropping lava into water, make barriers out of land to divert the flow of liquids, and carry out many other interactions between the three elements.

However just throwing around some land and water is not a game, there needs to be a goal, and that part is not quite as seamless as the physics system.  Each level is the same mechanically, your tribe arrives in a new land and you must clear the way for them to settle villages around different totems on the island left by The Ancients. Each totem you settle around unlocks a new power, such as “jellify water,” “put out fire”, “exhume all”, or many others. Each totem usually is surrounded by or submerged in an obstacle, and you must use the powers from the previous totems together in a increasingly complex combination.

A Phoenix Tree which has caused a fire. The player has absorbed a blob of water to put it out.

In early levels it may be as simple as using “repel water” to stop a tsunami from washing your village away. But further in it gets more and more complicated. For instance you may need to use “jellify water” to freeze an ocean, then “amplify breath” to quickly suck up and move a large quantity of water and create a pathway through the ocean.

It is actually surprising how many different scenarios there are in the game. With just the interaction of the elements to work with, I did not expect so many create and unique ways for them to work together. The game will incorporate different types of mystical trees that have their own unique abilities, and a large variety of geographical features, such as volcanoes or sinkholes.

However, for a game based off playing with the elements, From Dust does little to encourage experimentation. There are many disasters that can be set your villages and you need to fix them quickly and efficiently. There are no second chances, if a village catches on fire or starts to submerge, it will be destroyed. You can just send men over to resettle the villages, but it’s quite tedious, and there are many things you have to work out.

A fire might have erupted because you forgot to move a Phoenix Tree (which intermittently starts fires), or maybe a river channel you created overflowed because there was an unexpected surge of water. Or maybe you are settling the wrong totem and need a different power first. Until you try a difficult area a couple times you won’t even know if you are taking the right approach or not. It is quite aggravating especially when most levels take upwards of one hour to complete, and sometimes if you have modified the landscape too much, it may be easier to just restart and lose your progress.

The player has absorbed a blob of water to help clear the way to the totem in the distance.

When the tribesmen need help they will call out and little icons will popup above them. They might need help navigating to a new area, or are crying out for assistance in putting out a fire. But often times it is the most unimportant thing, like they somehow have gotten stuck on a piece of terrain, or need you to move a river. Then each of the tribesmen that are there will call out one after another, filling your screen with popups about the same thing. This will eventually lead you to ignore them until you have finished what you are doing, which is bad when a more serious problem occurs and you let them all drown or burn to death.

There are lots of little errors in the game that make it quite frustrating.  Before you can ask your men to go to another totem, the area around the totem has to be cleared of water and lava. Even a tiny bit of water that you may not even be able to see will stop them from venturing over, and picking up very small amount of something is difficult. If you want to pick up a bit of lava or water in the middle of a bunch of earth, you may accidentally pick up the earth instead, and aside for a few levels, there is no power to destroy matter. So you have to take the substance somewhere else.  When rivers and lava flows get in the way or tribesmen they will stop right on the edge of the substance, so close than any variation in the height of the water or lava will kill them or wash them away. Since you have no direct control over the men either, you can only watch them die.

Its these problems among many others that get more and more glaring as you progress and make the game feel like a chore. From Dust feels like it started off as just a physics sandbox, and eventually became a game. The physics aspects of From Dust are great, but the game needs work. Ubisoft has said they may develop a sandbox mode or multiplayer component for From Dust if it performs well enough (From Dust had the highest day-one sales of any Ubisoft XBLA game so far). I hope to see some addition features like the sandbox mode added, along with some fixes to the path finding and behavior of the tribesman.  With those improvements I could see From Dust becoming a must smoother and enjoyable game. Right now however, it’s a bit too unpolished. If you like the idea of playing with the elements and can overlook the difficulty and some of the bugs, then go ahead and buy the game, you will enjoy it. If you are skeptical about From Dust, wait to see if any patches are released for the Xbox 360 version, or get the PC version instead, which will surely benefit from the improved accuracy of the mouse.

+ Great physics system acts just as expected
+ Authentic feeling to the tribes actions
+ Pretty and unique art direction
– Tribesman A.I. needs work
–  Difficulty is frustrating at times

7 out of 10

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