What’s the point of having awesome godlike powers with no worshippers to tell you how cool you are? “From Dust” gives the player the ability to absorb and release sand, water, and lava, and tasks them with helping a migratory tribe survive in their new tropical habitat. Though playing a god is fun, your worshipper’s tendency to disobey will occasionally make you want to smite them.
“From Dust” tells the tale of a tribe who wanders the land while searching for relics left behind by the Ancients. Players don’t control the masked tribesmen. Instead, they alter the environment and instruct their followers as The Breath, a spinning, glowing cursor. With that said, don’t expect a traditional story. There’s only one lonely cutscene, very little dialogue, and no characters outside of your tribe in which to interact. This is a story about the beauty, ambivalence and violence of nature, and ancient man’s attempt to coexist with it.
As you progress through the game by building village after village, you will unlock the “cultural memory” of the tribe. This amounts to an in-game index detailing the rather limited flora and fauna you will encounter. One of the few disappointing elements of “From Dust” is that your tribe never really develops as a culture. This is partly due to the fact that each level is located on a separate island and there is no world map to gauge just how far your culture has spread. On every level they merely start over from scratch yet again. Also, the members of the tribe do little to endear themselves to you, since all they seem to do is ask for your help.
Is it too much to ask for a little praise after saving their village from volcanic Armageddon?
Speaking of volcanic Armageddon, you’ll be dealing with quite a few in this game, as well as tsunamis, forest fires and exploding trees. You can’t stop the tide, but you can use your ability to move sand to create a riverbed to channel the water away from your village.
Need a levee to stop that pesky lava from melting your villagers? Simply grab a bit of lava and pour it into a ridge. Once it cools, it will be solid rock capable of directing the lava wherever you want to go. The key to success in “From Dust” is understanding how the natural elements interact with each other. This is one of those rare games in which the careful application of common sense wins the day, as opposed to arbitrary fetch quests and sliding box puzzles.
Each level contains totems and sacred stones. These items can grant you or your tribe a new power. To acquire these, you must establish a village and send a runner from that village to the others, spreading the knowledge like a really handy virus. However, this is also where the game stumbles. There’s no way to select your tribesmen directly, so your newly established village could be wiped out by a tidal wave while you yell uselessly at your minions to bring them the Repel Water spell. The pathfinding is also less than divine with the aforementioned runners often stopping in their tracks due to tiny puddles of water.
Shouldn’t island people be able to swim?
What’s worse is that they never clarify the reason they’ve stopped. More than once, you’ll find yourself zoomed all the way in, staring at their feet and trying to figure out the problem. Helpful hints like “Too rocky!” or “Too wet!” would have been nice.
Blockheaded villagers are about the only thing worth complaining about though. The story mode is of decent length and allows you to unlock thirty challenge levels, each trickier than the next. Once you’ve beaten one, your time and score are uploaded to the online leaderboards, where more often than not you’ll find that someone beat your time by a wide margin. This realization that there’s a shortcut you didn’t think of will bring you back to the game again and again.
The visuals are downright heavenly. The sand, water, and lava all move with a realism and beauty that will make you ache for a tropical vacation. The music and voice acting are minimal, but effective in conveying the mood of the game.
“From Dust” is fantastically original and fun. There are a few annoyances here and there, but it’s not enough to tarnish this little gem’s halo. Give it a shot, and you’ll be praying for a sequel in no time.