If there’s anything the wild success of The Sims and games like it have taught me, it’s that we all secretly have God complexes and absolutely love any outlet that lets us live it out. There’s just something about being able to do things like lure your subjects into a pool and deleting the ladder that just puts us on a mad power trip. Ubisoft’s From Dust, released in 2011 on XBLA, PSN and PC, is a game that places you in the position of an actual god-like entity complete with your own worshipers who trust in you, completely and utterly.
Before the game lets players lose their heads on a power trip, From Dust makes its objectives very clear; protect and lead your people to safety by helping them to create enough settlements (at sites designated by totems) in an area before moving onto new lands. The core mechanic works as such; the player is a magical, glow worm summoned by the tribe known as ‘The Breath’, with the ability to pick up limited amounts of dirt, water or lava. This allows you to easily mold the terrain for different purposes for example, making a solid land bridge for your people to cross water or to create protective or divergent walls out of cooled lava. You also direct your people to objectives but more often than not, will have to help them get there with some creative terraforming. The PC version uses the mouse to pick up and move substances which is relatively precise but there can still be occasional accuracy issues such as picking up the wrong material which is frustrating with time sensitive matters. The camera can also be hypersensitive to your cursor position, moving suddenly which can really throw you off when trying to manipulate the entire map.
But of course From Dust isn’t without its challenges. The game pits you against nature, with you having to deal with not only small floods or fire outbreaks but also periodic natural disasters including tsunamis and regular volcanic eruptions that your local shaman warns you of . The game provides you with multiple ways of dealing with the bigger issues, one way being to send a runner to collect and bring to each settlement ‘musical knowledge’ that can repel each different element. Think ‘Parting of the Red Sea’ but also applicable to lava and fire. While your people can retrieve protection from the environment, you can conversely obtain special powers that can effectively stop the environment and are designed for different scenarios, for example you can jellify or evaporate all water on the map delaying the onslaught of flash floods and tsunamis, or even instantly extinguish fires across the map. These and the other powers work for short periods of time with decent cool downs but can easily help turn the tide (heh).
As you may have noticed, the real gem of this game is its emphasis on the forces of nature. The engine does well to run nature in ‘real-time’, with vegetation easily spreading where you’ve lain soil, strong rains causing flash floods and erosion or the constant interactions between earth, water and lava across the map. The game also has you utilizing the strange plants that regularly spew fire, water or just plain explode, through strategic placement. Place a water plant too close to a settlement for protection and it can lead to accidental flooding, or ignoring vegetation overgrowth can leave you vulnerable to fires that spread in the blink of an eye. You can also appreciate the vibrant graphics and ambient sounds with vegetation slowly colouring the map, the pretty water and sunshine-y environments and especially the bright orange lava flowing nicely over the screaming village you’ve just built for the third time.
The most impressive aspect of From Dust can also be its most frustrating one as it’s easy to get a build-up of the smaller problems when you’re also under timed pressure to protect your people from multiple oncoming disasters. The AI also has some path finding issues such as a tiny patch of dirt or water registering as an obstacle to movement or settlement and your people are suddenly yelling at you to help. You’re alerted to any impending dangers or tribesmen needing help so the game isn’t too punishing for not being observant but if too many of your people run into problems, it gets grating especially if you can’t see what’s wrong. The difficulty curve goes up reasonably well throughout the entire game but sometimes you just have to wonder if your people are really worth saving when they can’t sidestep a small pile of dirt while you’re trying to hold back a flood or when they decide that they want to make a settlement literally in the middle of a volcano that regularly erupts.
From Dust is a decent-lengthed exercise in management and patience with some minor AI issues and being occasionally overwhelming but the game sets out to give you god-like powers to pit you against nature and it does exactly that. The final level also doubles as a creative sandbox allowing for a more relaxing experience than the rest of the game. The overall controls and concepts of the game are well executed and it offers no small amount of satisfaction when you’ve stopped a tsunami or saved all your settlements from burning to tiny crisps. And hey, being an glowy entity with super powers and numerous worshipers is pretty fun in and of itself.