Fantastic visual and sound design - simple, versatile earth manipulation and physics system - encourages experimentation and creative thinking
Dumb AI - cannot control individual units - sometimes gives you too many plates to spin
The main reason why I tried this game in the first place was the name of its creative director: Eric Chahi, the man behind masterpieces such as Another World (renamed Out of this World in the US) and Heart of Darkness. After many years of absence from the gaming industry, thanks to Ubisoft Chahi returns with something completely different from his former projects, and it surely is a welcome return.
From Dust falls in between the god game and the sandbox genres, god game in which you have to ensure the survival of a tribe of primitives depending on you and sandbox in the purest sense, giving you the ability to reshape the game world at your leisure to allow your people to build their villages and keep them safe from the fury of the elements. Those of you who played around with the FarCry 2 map editor may have an idea of what we're looking at technically-wise: the game allows you to alter the terrain in a simple yet impressively deep way: using what the game calls "The Breath" (essentially a snake-shaped cursor) you can pick up earth, water and lava in a giant ball and redistribute them on the ground to achieve various effects. Want to change the course of a river threatening to drown your tribesmen? You can create a dam to block the riverbed. Need to cross to a distant island? Build an earth bridge for your men to walk on. Want to keep the lava from burning your village? Either build a wall around it with the solidified lava itself or dig a moat and fill it with water, the possibilities are endless. Earth doesn't sit still: it will realistically crumble and fall into place and it will be wiped out by strong tides or water currents. Just because you built a strong earth wall it doesn't mean it'll be there indefinitely.
To aid you in keeping your tiny minions alive, the game provides you with various powers, changing from level to level, which you have to earn by building villages around totems placed at fixed and often hard to reach locations. The powers include the ability to drop an unlimited amount of earth for a very limited time, the ability to 'jellify' water for a while, so you can dig through it as it were earth (is that how Moses did it?), the power of evaporation allows you to lower the water level around the map, allowing your villages to survive floods and heavy rain. Other powers allow you to expand the Breath carrying capacity, quickly put out fires threatening your settlements and other functions. You'll also find magical stones in remote areas of the maps, which grant your villages the immunity to tsunamis of lava flows: it's extremely satisfying seeing a huge tidal wave or a river of scorching magma destroying the scenery but leaving your little town unscathed, definitely worth the effort to acquire said protections.rnWhen a village is built, vegetation will start to spread all around it, propagating as far as fertile earth goes without being interrupted. This is both good and bad, since vegetation burns easily when coming in contact with fire or lava, often meaning the destruction of one or more villages. Luckily you can control this by cutting off fertile ground by creating stony areas or water basins. Vegetation is not always innocuous: aside from palm trees, the maps are often dotted with different plants that will sometimes make your life harder, sometimes easier: the razor weeds are gigantic pointy plants your men cannot cross and you need to burn or work around, fire plants and water plants respectively cyclically burst into flames, or release water when exposed to heat, finally exploding plants create a big explosion when burned with fire or lava. You can sometimes pick up and move these plants as well, which gives you even more strategic options: need to empty a lake? Why not blow a hole in the rock with an exploding plant and let the water pour out. Fire plants burning your villages? A strategically placed water plant can save your village even without your intervention.
You don't have direct control over your men: to command them to move you simply click on a totem or magical stone and they'll march towards it, your task being to ensure they have a safe path to reach their destination. Once all totems have been populated at the same time a portal will open leading to the next level, but don't relax too much: if one of the villages gets destroyed the portal will close and you'll lose that totem's corresponding power until the settlement is rebuilt.rnThe main issue here is with your men's artificial intelligence: their pathfinding is less than spotless, you'll often see them getting stuck where they should be able to proceed, sometimes leading to wasting precious time you could use to build and fortify your villages, which is especially frustrating when the game forces you to a conspicuous amount of multitasking. Even though you'll sometimes be left wanting to be able to give orders to individual 'headstrong' men, this is fortunately no game-breaking flaw and it doesn't detract too much from the overall experience.
Despite not looking particularly stunning, From Dust manages to amaze thanks to its striking visual style: characters and buildings share a charming and quirky design and watching a massive tsunami ravage the land is a sight to behold. The simple sound consists of quiet tribal music and chants and voices spoken in a believable pseudo-african tribal language. The music drastically picks up when danger arises, urging you to take action. All of this sets the perfect mood for what happens on screen.
Being a $15 downloadable game, From Dust doesn't offer a huge amount of content, only 13 missions. It does, however, feature 30 brief challenge maps, some of which are so difficult they should last you a good amount of time. You can experiment with alternative ways to solve each stage of the story mode and you can strive to achieve the 100% vegetation spread in all of them. This should keep you busy for at least a week, which is definitely a good value. It even offers a completely sandbox map to create your own stage from scratch with absolute freedom, shaping the landscape and, for once, controlling the forces of nature.
In conclusion, From Dust is surely a quality game for the thinking man. It requires good planning skills, creativity and quick reflexes. Losing doesn't cause much frustration, as you can always figure out what you did wrong and how to fix it and you can be sure the game gives you several ways to do so. It also allows you to save at any time, so you can try bold new strategies without losing all your progress. A definite must buy for anyone who loves a game requiring some thought and mental effort. A great return for a legendary game designer like Eric Chahi, which doubtlessly leaves us wanting more of his work in the near future.