In the mad rush of every single upcoming release being turned into the next ManShooter IX it’s easy to forget that we’re dealing with videogames. These are things where we can be anything and do anything, at any time, anywhere, ever. We used to have that knowledge; we used to know a time when we would play as the very gods we all dreamed of being. But the ever-encroaching consumerist machine trampled our dreams until they were little more than a vague memory – something about owning a giant tiger that harassed villagers, another hazy recollection of shepherding people around by manipulating the very world itself.
But it turns out someone didn’t forget, and all it takes to remind us of what it would be like to be a deity is someone who left the gaming industry 13 years ago – someone untarnished by the Way Things Are These Days. Enter Eric Chahi, his last major release the haunting Heart Of Darkness back in 1998, his most famous release easily the classic Another World, further back in 1991. Chahi and his team at Ubisoft Montpellier bring with them a genre we haven’t seen much from in a while, reinvigorating the god game with From Dust. And it certainly brings back those memories of shepherding people around by manipulating the very world itself.
This is a game pure of mechanics, with a very simple theme to each and every one of its 13 main levels. Your task in each is to populate each totem on the map – up to four – with a village, and once this is done to reach the portal to the next level. How you go about it is an altogether more complex issue – though not as complex as we had hoped it would be. It is a lot of fun, though, shaping the world that brings your people the progress and the knowledge they are constantly questing for – as the story unobtrusively points out.
Later levels and the powers players pick up allow even more experimentation and literal sandbox play. There’s no time limit to complete levels, and though there are often threats from nature itself around, there’s always a way to avoid danger or to protect your villages from harm – once you’ve found it you are free to take on each level at your own pace. Take, for example, the infinite earth power – bestowing the player with an unlimited amount of sand to drop wherever for a set amount of time. Careful, considered use of this power can enable players to build entire new land masses for their people to explore and settle on, for vegetation to colonise and new creatures to come and live. It’s a simple thing and certainly not something the game actively demands players do, but it’s a rewarding and oddly empowering experience – you are literally creating new worlds, after all. This is no more evident than in one later level where – even without the player’s interference – entire land masses are formed before your eyes.
Sand, water, lava, animals and vegetation all play their own roles in From Dust, and it’s through careful management and using elements together that success is achieved. Fire tree threatening your village? Put a water plant on the outskirts. Lava flow incoming? Use the very same lava to build a trench to divert it away. Tsunami incoming? Pray (often called ‘the repel water power’). Most problems have multiple solutions too, so you’re rarely left wanting when it comes to knowing what to do and you’re often rewarded for experimenting.
There are problems with From Dust, much as we wanted to adore it in an unashamedly preposterous fashion. Controls – at least via a joypad (this may be different on PC) – are imprecise, with readjustments often necessary to get the cursor on the correct item or villager. It’s not a huge issue in the main part, but we did experience a few moments where time was of the essence and an inaccurate god was not what we needed. Then there’s the villagers themselves, the adorable little idiots that they are. Again, for the most part they’re fine – their pathfinding is clever, often picking the most efficient route and automatically heading out for tasks you might normally have to micromanage for in other games. But then there are the other times. The times where no matter how much you tell them not to, they are determined to try and cross a stream of lava to get to the next totem, or how that fifth, required villager won’t chant at a totem to set up a village, or how they’ll cry for help when stood next to a former stream you’ve clearly blocked off so they can pass. They range from perfectly fine to perfect fools, and it can annoy.
Then there are the more general problems – From Dust is a rather simple game, both in its premise and of how easy it is to work through. You will encounter some problems, and some of the extra challenges outside the main story mode are quite hard, but generally speaking it’s not much of a trial for those with even the slightest bit of grey matter. Combined with the brevity of the experience, it makes for the inescapable feeling of being a little bit let down. Still, it’s a downloadable release – we aren’t expecting a 40-hour epic – so it’s unfair to be overly hard on that element. From Dust is hypnotic, captivating and, most importantly, fun. It’s a sandbox that rewards creativity and playfulness as much as it punishes it and, while it suffers some irritating issues, it’s a very welcome experience.