Publisher: Ubisoft / Developer: Ubisoft Montpellier / ESRB: Everyone 10+ (Mild Violence) / Price: $15 / Played on: Xbox 360
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From Dust marks the return to games of famed designer Eric Chahi, and I for one couldn’t be happier. The man created Out of This World, one of the most stylistic and moody experiences of the 16-bit era, and he’s brought that pedigree of game design to From Dust. The problem is, actually playing the game is not as great as I hoped it would be.
Ostensibly, From Dust is a god-game simulation for Xbox Live Arcade that has you manipulating the elements of the world to help a hapless tribe of natives discover the past of their culture.
You play as the Breath, a mystical force of nature formed by music that can pick up and deposit the three elements of the game world: earth, water, and lava. In each level your mission is to settle villages around the various ancient totems from the tribe’s past. Settling these totems will usually grant the Breath special powers, like the ability to put out fire or freeze water, and once you settle all the totems, you guide your natives to the exit and on to the next level.
So what you’ve got here is a simulation that plays more like a puzzle game since you can’t directly move or affect your natives, but merely guide them by shaping the land. It’s an interesting concept, and seeing the various maps deform and change over time is really amazing.
Sadly, a number of critical problems plague the game, not the least of which is the difficulty. From Dust is hard. Really hard. And not in a good way; it’s hard due to numerous frustrating problems. Most levels feature a countdown clock that looms cataclysmic disaster over your head, be it a tsunami that obliterates the map, or a volcanic eruption that dumps lava flows across the terrain. See, once you settle a village, the newfound civilization helps spread vegetation across the maps, which not only beautifies the scenery, but also stops erosion and unlocks story entries about the tribe. Tidal waves will wash away all that vegetation, and lava will ignite it, rendering all your hard work null should you not find a way to prevent it.
This in itself isn’t a bad system, but it’s the way the game handles repercussions of the environment changing during gameplay that is infuriating. There’s no hotkey to zoom in on your various villages as you play a level, so you could be trying to get your natives to cross a ravine while the village they departed from is burning to the ground without you being able to react fast enough. Sure, the natives scream in terror, but you can’t tell who’s under attack. You end up feeling like a helpless god who has to watch his mortal beings suffer in misery.
Then there’s the fact that the pathfinding AI for the natives as they run from one village to the next is absolutely broken. They scream for help when they can’t cross a river or lava flow, and when you make a bridge for them, oftentimes the game will reroute them around the circumference of the map or through really dangerous territory.
And there’s nothing you can do to stop them from immolating themselves or being in the wrong place at the wrong time
I also saw numerous instances where one of the little pea-brains couldn’t climb a hill that was a couple feet high, forcing me to abandon my plans shaping the terrain elsewhere on the map so I could pick up sand and make a tiny hill. It’s a bit like The Sims in this regard: tending after brainless idiots who always seem to make the wrong decision. Maybe there’s a more subtle commentary on God at work here, but as a gamer I just felt stymied.
In all, there’s a real lack of positive reinforcement to player action. Most of the time I just guessed at what would work and hoped for the best. Some of the mechanics, like the water and fire trees introduced about halfway through the game, are very poorly explained, or not explained at all, leaving me to wonder if I was playing From Dust the way Ubisoft wanted me to.
From Dust is a joy to watch. The real-time simulation of the environment as it changes is probably the coolest part of the game. When tidal waves storm in from the ocean, they deposit silt, which can be used to build walls and paths for your natives. Volcanoes spew lava, which when it dries or touches water, creates new rock. The interplay between elements makes any level in From Dust a fun little physics experiment; can I build a wall high enough to stop this river? Either the wall will erode, or the river will flow off down another path of least resistance, which could conceivably open or close off other parts of the map. Some of the puzzles even use this technique to empty pools of water that threaten to burst from their caldera and overflow one of your villages.
I preferred to play the game pulled out as far as the camera would let me (it was the only way I could even attempt to track everything going on). Up close, some of the textures and animations are very simplistic, which is an expected trade-off given the heavy physics and fluid simulations running behind the scenes.
In addition to the main story–which has you moving the natives from one island to another in search of their past–there’s also a challenge mode that, in all honesty, is way more fun than the main game. In this mode, you are given an objective, a rule, and a time limit. For example, as the Breath you can only pick up water, and you have to get a native from the village to the top of a mountain to learn the song of water protection so the tribe can survive the coming tsunami. Meanwhile, the idol that contains the song of water protection is buried under a lake, so you have to bail out the lake as quickly as possible while the little dude makes a run for it. These focused mini-stages feel like they were constructed with a purpose, and I got a definite sense of what I was supposed to be doing and how to do it. The challenges get harder as you progress, but they lack the wonder from the main story of watching the landscape deform and reform.
I really wanted to love From Dust. I love the concept. I love Eric Chahi. But the gameplay feels like it was never play-tested, and the difficulty curve is wild and unsatisfying. If I could learn through failure, it wouldn’t feel so frustrating. From Dust is a cool experiment, and one that I hope isn’t abandoned. There’s a fun time to be had in here somewhere, the core experience just needs to be refined.