Aug 062011

The trees of water vibrate naturally to the music of the water, the trees of fire resonate to the music of fire and so forth… As for the men, they have the ability to learn each of the melodies of the world. They do so by obtaining a power.

That quote is taken from the lore of the tribe of people around which Ubisoft’s sandbox/god game From Dust is centered. In this game, players control a pseudo-divine entity known as the Breath as it re-shapes the environment to make it habitable of an aboriginal tribe of mask-wearing humans. By doing this, the Breath not only makes it possible for this group of seemingly mentally deficient people to live in their adverse planet, but also guides them to forgotten memories and phenomenal supernatural abilities.

The core gameplay mechanic of From Dust centers around the aforementioned Breath, which is a snake-like cursor that has the ability to draw up substances in the surrounding environment into a large sphere, and then release them anywhere. The objective in each level is to help small groups of humans form villages around ivory colored totems, recover their forgotten history, and to learn abilities to help them survive in the incredibly inhospitable world they inhabit. To do this players will use the Breath for tasks ranging from simple, like moving soil to form a land bridge for a tribesman to cross;  to the complex, grooming the cone of a volcano to keep the lava away from your fragile wards.

The people of From Dust. As one of my colleagues called them, the freaking "Cheez-It faces". Click to enlarge.

As the game progresses, the Breath will be able to learn new and incredibly powerful abilities which activate once a village has been successfully situated around the totem that corresponds to the ability. There are quite a few different ones, such as Jellify Water which will make all the water on the map into a semi-solid so you can carve a path through it, Moses style. You could also jellify the water to delay an impending tsunami while the tribe readies itself. Lose the village around an ability’s corresponding totem and the Breath will lose that ability, so that is even more reason to keep the people safe.

By sculpting the world you will not only make it safe for people, but you will also make it possible for them to regain their lost knowledge. For example, when you find a stone containing the knowledge of their Repel Water ability, you summon someone to it by selecting it with the Breath and pressing A. Doing so will cause a man to begin a trek to the stone with a kite he will paint the knowledge on when he gets there. He then must run back and teach the ability to the whole village in the form of a song before they are laid to waste by a natural disaster. There are other points you will guide men to, such as lost memories of the tribe or the portal that will advance the story mode to the next chapter.

A thriving village. Click to enlarge.

Most players will reach a point in this game when they wish the Breath had an ability they could activate to bestow some common sense upon the tribe. Maybe then they would not only see it is ridiculous to want to settle down in adverse locales like in the mouth of an active volcano, but also maybe they would learn how to safely and efficiently navigate their world. Most of the frustration found while playing From Dust comes from a dodgy pathfinding AI. The tribesmen often get hung up on tiny obstacles that fall within their trail, such as a puddle of water, and seem to have no idea that they could detour around it and only take five extra steps than they originally intended. There were also many times where people thought the best path to their destination was directly through a lake of molten rock, rather than across the completely lava-free bridge that had been constructed for them. This was infuriating at first, and even caused a need for a couple of maps to be restarted, but it is possible to work around this flaw, and it’ll be totally worth the time it takes to figure out how do it.

Aside from the main story mode of the game, there is also a challenge mode with 30 short levels which limit what substances the Breath can manipulate and gives the player objectives that are far more unique than those in story mode. Online leaderboards are included, so it will be easy to see if you picked the best solution for a given situation based on how close your time is to the person in the number one slot. This is bound to add a ton of replay value for all players.

Not only will players have their minds bent by the puzzling nature of the world in From Dust, but they will be emerged in a world full of interesting audio and visual details. Water cleaves its way through the terrain with a faint and realistic glimmer, and lava makes satisfying oozing and suction sounds as you move a burning red orb of it to its destination. If you zoom in the view you can hear the persistent music of the tribe and the calls of the wildlife. All the lighting and particle effects are phenomenal and look as though they came off of a full disc based game.

A globe of water being moved by the Breath. Click to enlarge.

From Dust is an excellent example of what kind of game creative and out-of-the-box thinking can bring us. Inventive, if slightly flawed, gameplay combined with a sharp presentation and the convenience of a downloadable game make this a title that could easily be the highlight of Xbox Live Arcade’s “Summer of Arcade”. Most people will have hours of inexpensive enjoyment of taking care of the game’s Cheez-It faced people, irregardless of how slow witted they are.

From Dust

Great and fresh-feeling gameplay mechanics are joined well with a fantastic audio and visual presentation.Controls sometimes feel imprecise, the AI makes stupid decisions.
VerdictTaking up the mantle of the Breath can be both rewarding and frustrating, but the overall experience of From Dust is a great one.

  One Response to “From Dust | Review (XBLA)”

  1. Nice to see that a game that doesn't revolve around shooting things. Good review – I may have to pick this one up.

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