Guest Author - James Shea
A fairly innovative puzzle game from Ubisoft, "From Dust" has the player solving problems using the raw elements of nature itself.
While it may look like a God Game akin to "Populous" or "Black and White" based on the role the player takes, "From Dust" is closer to a puzzle game that just happens to involve villagers. The player takes the role of a guardian spirit whose job is to help a tribe progress through different islands to retrace the steps of their ancestors. This is done by building villages at the totems scattered throughout the level, and preventing them from being wiped out by floods, fires, or lava flows.
The player has two main powers as the guardian spirit. Firstly, they can issue orders to the villagers, but these are extremely constrained and largely limited to things like "colonize this totem" or "take this item". The game's main theme is found in its second power, the ability to reshape the earth by grabbing soil, water, or lava and dispensing it where it is needed. The game's physics engine is pretty in-depth, and diverting the flow of water with hardened lava or walls of soil is a huge part of the game's design. Each element has a positive and negative side. Soil houses vegetation, but that vegetation can also catch fire and endanger villages. Water puts out fires and makes soil viable for growth, but if it's not properly diverted it can wash away a village. Lava can be solidified to make walls against the tide, but can also burn vegetation.
Added to this basic, natural mix are the various powers the player unlocks in each level. Each power is associated with a totem, and building a village at that totem unlocks the power for that level. These powers include straightforward, self-explanatory ones like "extinguish fire", but also ones that are a bit more unusual. The power "jellify water", for example, stops water from flowing - useful for when you're trying to let people do something in an area that's about to be washed away by a flood. There's also three kinds of trees that can be uprooted and replanted, adding more tools to the player's arsenal. The "fire trees" periodically burn the area around them, which sets vegetation ablaze but also stops the flow of water if placed strategically. "Water trees" store water and release them if fire comes near; useful if placed downhill of a village, to prevent the water from washing the village away. Finally, "bomb trees" explode when fire is applied to them, and the resulting detonation can blast craters even into solid rock.
The graphics in general are one of the game's best features. While there's a fairly limited palette (the same villages, the same villagers, the same dirt and water and rock), the detail on both large terrain features and character movements is admirable. It's a beautiful game to watch while it works - that is to say, the flow of water and lava and the erosion of soil are as much a part of the game's aesthetic as they are a part of its gameplay. While it might get old kind of quickly (and the lack of diversity does become noticeable), it's without doubt a very good looking game. The sound design is all right, relying heavily on environmental noises, but is not quite as evocative.
Overall, From Dust is a good puzzle game, and perhaps the biggest disappointment is that it's JUST a puzzle game. The terrain features offer all sorts of long-term concepts, and yet they're just used for solving short-term problems. The villagers have interesting designs and animations, but they don't have any traits - they're just nameless peons for the player to occasionally order around. It's not a bad game, but I don't think it's what most people expected it to be. For its price, though, the amount of content seems about right.
We purchased this game with our own funds from Steam.