From Dust is the latest title from video-game auteur Éric Chahi, creator of such wonderful games as Another World and the fantastically dark yet often-times silly platformer Heart of Darkness.
You take on the role of The Breath; empowered by your tribe of men and women to lead them across deserts, seas, molten flows and through lush jungles. Unfortunately, only the trees and dirt aren't trying to outright murder the poor sods. Good thing then that sand, water and lava are yours to control.
Just think of the sandcastles!
The basic gameplay elements follow an easy to use drag and drop formula. You can pick up each of the three main elements with a mouse click, then release whatever you're holding elsewhere. The simplicity of this is a lot of fun to play around with and I found I spent a good chunk of time just trying to see what I could build. Each element has a certain amount of fluidity to it. Water cascades, sand piles up into dunes and lava oozes. And in turn, each provides a different function within the game world.
Sand is put to good use as a makeshift barricade against water in addition to allowing forests to grow. Water extinguishes fires and solidifies lava. And lava, (while prone to bringing fiery doom) can be used to dam up a pesky volcano or create a more permanent fortification against a raging tsunami.
We'll not regret building our village here. No sir.
On each land you will find a number of totems; these act as both a place for your tribe to gather and will occasionally provide you with special powers; these abilities range in amplifying your power allowing to carry more, to solidify water or put out fires across the whole map. Clicking on a totem will set your tribe moving. The challenge is both to make sure your tribe can set up their village safely and to ensure it doesn't get buried under a mountain of lava. Once a certain amount of totems on a map are colonised you are free to move onto the next land. Though this is the basic goal throughout most of the campaign the difficulty does vary, especially ramping up in the later levels.
As you move through the lands you'll start to encounter some interesting flora too that may be used to your advantage or not as the case may be. Fire-trees that evaporate nearby water and burn down forests. Water-trees that absorb water, and will release it in the presence of fire. And the Explosive-tree which...explodes, making it perfect for demolitions.
Though there are only thirteen missions in total in the main campaign, there are a number of challenge missions to unlock. These missions vary in difficulty and should offer a few extra hours of fun on top of the campaign.
*squints* That's right, run you wee little men.
I should probably mention the story at this point, and unfortunately this is something of a downside to From Dust. The game is of course a budget title so it may be unfair to expect a grand several hour long plot, however what little story there is is a little simplistic, and while this simplicity works for the gameplay, and aesthetics, it does not work here. The basic framework is that of a creation myth, you are the Breath of the Tribe given power if not form and must lead them on the path of the Ancients to a land of their own, and indeed one that isn't so inclined to kill them. However, much of the backstory is not actually revealed within the game itself but rather with an ancillary encyclopaedia of sorts, one that you need to unlock entries of by collecting 'Memory Stones' in game, and also from spreading a certain percentage of forest over a map up to a total of 100%. This serves to add an extra layer of something to do on-top of the main gameplay focus, however it does I feel cause the story to become a bit detached from the game. This is compounded by the fact that your Tribesmen have very little personality to them at all, with the only real character being the Shaman who narrates the beginning of every mission. But even then, he has little to do within the game itself beyond being the one who has to go out and obtain certain powers for his village.
Finally, graphically and aesthetically From Dust is a beautiful game. Though the maps are actually quite small upon close inspection, the way the visual elements are handled make it easy to ignore the fact you're playing in a box. As mentioned, most the elements on display flow very realistically, and you can easily get lost just watching them work off each other. Everything just works aesthetically from the swaying palm forests to your villagers stilted huts to their little masks. And the music, while not especially memorable, mostly focusing on a more ambient sound with a lot of tribal style instrumentation fits perfectly. There are some minor problems with regards to a limited zoom functionality, making it difficult to get right up close to your Tribesmen and Women, and the camera can be a bit ornery at times.
Also, I would be remiss if I did not at least give a mention to Ubisoft's handling of From Dust's release. I can honestly state that I have not had any of the problems that many people are bringing up such as frame-rate issues, shoddy controls, lack of graphics options and the requirement for always on DRM. That said, it is apparent that many people do have issues with these, and while the only one that doesn't especially bother me is the always on DRM (despite Ubisoft apparently not being entirely truthful about its presence), I can understand many a gamer's frustration. This is a shame, because such issues mar what is otherwise a very good game underneath.
From Dust is well worth a purchase, although it never really rises from being a good game to being a great game.
From Dust is available on Steam, for Windows, XBLA and PSN
(All images were taken from ingame screenshots and remain the property of their respective owners. No copyright infringement is intended.)