From Dust is a tough game to describe. At the core it appears to be a “God Game”, and depending on which trailers you saw it was marketed as such. However while the game does feature core aspects of a God game, it most certainly is not one. Yes you are an all powerful disembodied entity controlling the world around your weak followers, but it’s more of a puzzle game than anything.
The ultimate question is whether From Dust achieves anything, or just falls flat. Is it fun or frustrating? Would you believe me if I said all of the above?
When I say that From Dust isn’t what would be called a God Game, I suppose I’m not being entirely truthful. It’s tough to explain properly, but it needs to be made absolutely clear that this is not Black & White 3 or Populous 2, though it draws a lot of inspiration from titles like those. In From Dust you play as the benevolent God to a small tribe of people. Your goal is to help them thrive in the current landscape and survive the many troubles that are out to get them.
Each level takes place in a completely new area, which is shown with your tribe appearing at the beginning and a little exposition that gives some insight to what sort of dangers might await you and sometimes a hint on how you might progress. Things start out fairly simple with your on-screen cursor (which looks like a strange snake travelling across the world) able to pick up and dump dirt and water. Each level has a different setup, but ultimately your goal is the same: send five villagers to each of the totems scattered around the land to activate them. Often you’ll be granted a new power when you gain control of a new totem, and will lose that power should the totem be compromised. While the premise of each level is the same, the means of accomplishing these goals are far from it.
Despite having the help of a not-quite all-powerful Deity, it seems that the forces of the world don’t like your little tribesmen very much as each environment they encounter is trying to stop them at every turn. Whether it’s tidal waves constantly flooding the world, volcanoes erupting, or even the very ground itself shifting back and forth things are never as simple as just walking to each goal.
While your powers of world shaping are mostly limited to dirt, water and lava (which hardens into rock when you deposit it) it would seem that whichever deity you’re playing as is a very inventive one. With this comes one of the games greatest strengths in that you have a lot of options to solve each level, the only limit being the powers available in each level and your own imagination.
The powers that are granted from the totems are going to be your key to success, and determining what order to grab them will probably be the single most important part of any strategy. On one level you’re warned that the world is going to get flooded in about a minute. Thankfully the closest totem to your starting position allows your villages to repel water, so surviving the first flood is easy. It’s grabbing a new village and allowing a tribesman to run from the first to the second to give it the power as well that’s the hard part.
The graphics in the game are pretty impressive for a game of this scale with so much going on, and while you can zoom in to a closer view you’ll wind up spending a majority of the game zoomed out as far as possible to get the best view of what’s happening around the world so you won’t have much time to admire the small details. This is to be expected of a game like this and while it’s nice to know that up close things are beautiful, it’s a shame the wonderful graphics take a back seat.
Speaking of taking a back-seat, From Dust has a series of challenge levels which are unlocked for beating each level and accomplishing certain goals in them. However in a strange twist, I feel like it’s the main story mode which takes a back seat to the challenge levels. Each regular level is fairly straight forward, but the challenges get extremely creative with the obstacles thrown your way and the goals to accomplishing them. They may not have nearly the open-ended approach available to them but I found myself having a lot more fun with them.
Some of the levels in both the story and the challenges can be quite punishing in their difficulty, but thankfully the game works with you as much as possible to help make things as easy as it can without holding your hand. Easily noticable audio cues will inform you when you’ve collected the maximum amount of whatever you’re grabbing, on-screen indicators are clear when a new danger is approaching, and an icon will appear above the head of any villager that’s in danger or needs your help. The latter can get pretty annoying at times but even when I wanted to yell at them to shut up and would have liked a way to clear the icons or shut them up, I was still grateful for the notification.
The biggest problem I had with the game was that ultimately it’s lacking in diversity. While the frequency of their appearance or implementation of the malevolent forces in the game will vary from level to level (or sometimes within one) it ultimately comes down to two forces: fire and water. One level late game features a shifting world, but this is only present one time in the story mode. This problem isn’t present in the challenge levels as they are MUCH more creative with their use of these elements, though they lack the best quality of the story mode as stated earlier.
From Dust is not for everybody. Those looking for a full on create-or-destroy God game will be disappointed, though the last level of the game is a sandbox type level which is quite fun for awhile. If you’re looking for that kind of game look elsewhere, but if you want a rich compelling puzzle game that will have you scratching your head long after you’ve given up on a particular puzzle for awhile you might want to take a closer look at this one.
Frustrating at times, From Dust is a rich experience with a lot of content on hand that will keep you busy for quite awhile. A little more variety in both the powers available and the forces working against you would have been nice and added a lot more depth to the game, but ultimately there is a lot of fun to be had with this clever series of puzzles.