Wednesday, 14 September 2011

From Dust - XBLA review

An edited version of this review can be found at Gamer-UK

From Dust is not the game the previews would have you believe it is. Hailed in its inception and during production as a ‘God’ game, From Dust gives the player very little control over much but the, admittedly impressive, landscape. You are constantly at the mercy of the (for the most part) unpredictable and (always) brutal weather/natural disaster combo and as a result are rendered almost as hapless as the minions you are charged with shepherding from one ‘totem’ to the next.

OK, so let me spread this out for you. From Dust is a landscape sculpting game. A JCB simulator, if you like. Once the initial Godly novelty of moving mountains wears off – it doesn’t take long – what you are left with is a whole heap of dirt that has to be moved from one place to another. The reason for this mass excavation? To populate an increasingly hostile world with Tribes-people. Acting as The Breath, it is your job care for these mindless settlers as they wander, somewhat aimlessly (I'll come back to the AI soon), across the sand and soil until they are shepherded by your Almighty excavations to a previously placed Totem. These totems mark safe ground for your little people to settle and populate.

The settlers themselves are a little like the Lemmings from the '90's Amiga game of the same name. They will often find themselves in situations where their progress from spawning point to Totem is blocked. It's up to The Breath to scoop chunks out of the existing landscape to use elsewhere; a holy handful of lava, ladled from a handy volatile volcano will, when spread across a body of water, cool into a rock bridge. The settlers that were previously stumped and bumping into each other on the beach will now, hopefully, make good use of this new, steaming overpass and use it to progress to the next landmass.

Now, for all The Breaths phenomenal cosmic powers, the limitations present in From Dust grate more than occasionally. The tribes-people are stupid, with all the self preservation of a, well, a lemming; quite happy to hurl themselves to certain death from a rocky outcrop but flummoxed to a stand-still by a waist-high stream. That the settlers you are charged with keeping safe have managed thus far to reach adulthood is a mystery.

So, not strictly a God game, then. Once you have made your peace with that what you are left with is an almighty puzzler. The puzzles begin simply enough, like the aforementioned use of cooled lava or just galactic gobfuls of dirt to make little bridges across water, but the wake-up call comes when the disasters arrive; tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and all manner of other hindrances. Sometimes it will be the simplest of problems; you can't instruct your people to make a village if there is any water around the totem site and with the tide coming in and water eroding your dirt walls you'll have to use some quick thinking to move on. As you settle totems, some of them will unlock a power for you to use on that map. Jellify Water will turn every body of water into a Jelly like substance, letting you part the sea like Moses or hold a massive flood in place. The villagers themselves can get in on the action as well; you can send your shamans to collect powerful songs that will protect the village from lava or water. It can be quite enjoyable to mull out the solutions, and the "ah ha!" moments of figuring it out never stops being satisfying.

Path-finding is fun, from spawn point to totem, and you will find that your minds eye is a gaming tool in itself as you survey the landscape from the clouds (I had issue with the camera, which only has two settings: up close and really, really far away. Many times I cursed the non-variable nature of it).  Although the levels themselves are not timed affairs, there is always a sense of urgency brought on by the ever-changing accelerated landscape. A flood can come in and redirect the flow of lava which will then ignite the forests which will then burn down your village, etc. etc. No amount of damage that this higher being can wreak upon you and your villagers is detrimental to the missions but the speed at which events can happen and set back progress can be frustrating and leave you with two choices: take the missions at your leisure and condemn yourself to hours of damage limitation, or, plough through it at break-neck speed and hope these hateful elements don't catch up with you. They always do, though. And while the first half of From Dust is relatively sedate, the disasters are piled on thick as you near the end.

Expect to complete the mission segments of From Dust in under eight hours; a time frame that is perfectly pitched for the XBLA price-point and market. Just don't expect to want to replay those missions, unless you get a kick out of being harried relentlessly. The real reward comes when those eight hours are over and the game you originally wanted is presented to you; a sand-box mode of sorts where you can finally take it all in.  The visuals in From Dust are nothing short of breath-taking and it's here in this sand-box mode where the game comes a few steps further to a real sense of Godliness; just playing with the elements and watching the wind catch sand, the shifting tides and bubbling volcanoes is extremely therapeutic and the perfect come-down from a game that promised so much and delivered something else at such velocity that it hoped you wouldn't notice.

So, hovering somewhere between God Game and JCB simulator is From Dust. A game that, while not delivering on consumers expectations, is a beautiful, challenging puzzle game that occasionally touched greatness. But it's limitations and frustrations blemish the landscape of this very good disappointment.

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