The god-game genre is well known and has seen big hits like Populous way back when, and the Black & White games. There has not really been anything too fresh in the genre since then however, until this little game called From Dust. The game was designed by Eric Chahi and developed by Ubisoft Montpellier, and published by Ubisoft as well. It is said to be and feels like a spiritual successor to Populous, one of the games that pioneered the god-game genre. It definitely has some stylistic similarities to that and other games of this ilk, but do not expect to simply trudge old territory when playing this. Everything from the artistic style, to the gameplay itself is quite unique and even innovative at times. Continue reading for my complete breakdown on what I thought of From Dust’s intriguing offering.
First things first, you should know what this game is and what this game is not. This game is a god-game, of sorts, in that you control a being (or “breath” in this case) that is some type of deity with power and/or influence over a populous (lol.) This game also plays very much like most real-time strategy games in that you have your top-down like view and can see large areas of the field, action unfolds in real-time and you are tasked with strategically making decisions in order to win.
This game is not, however, a sandbox game. You do not have a big world to simply go around and play with and see what happens. Instead, the game is set up in a very linear fashion where you are tasked with completing specific objectives in order to progress to the next map. This is true for the story mode and challenge mode. Later on in the game possibilities open up for you to approach issues from different angles, but ultimately the game is pretty linear. This is true for the overall storyline, as well as the actions you can take. You are simply the guide of the tribe really, you cannot harm them or you fail or are punished in some way.
The story in this game is pretty basic, you are worshiped by this tribe as the “breath” (which is an appropriate name once you see how the action pans out) and they are on a quest to discover the relics of their ancestors, expand their civilization and generally survive. The game essentially consists of the tribe discovering a new area, having to unlock totems and building little villages around the totems and eventually discovering a gate that leads them to their next location where the same basic process takes place. It is your job to morph the land in order for them to progress, help them fend of wild fires, redirect the flow of rivers for vegetation, protect them from tsunamis, and anything else the game throws your way.
The central gameplay mechanic in From Dust allow you to harness sand, water, lava, etc. by leeching it from where it lies, and then transporting it to another area. For example, if your little buddies are trying to travel across to another island, you can jellify the water so that there is a path through it (think Moses parting the Red Sea) or you can find an area not really used, and transpose the sand to create a passage. The early levels have you making these decisions pretty easily, but once you get farther in the game things start to get a lot more complex. Should you create a walk path across to the other island, which will block the flow of water and redirect it, which could mean that the river protecting one of your villages from wild fires will no longer be active? There are many other elements and powers and features you unlock as the game progresses and I do not want to spoil them here, but suffice to say that water trees are very useful and should be used strategically!
Unfortunately, you can really tell that this game was probably designed with a mouse and keyboard in mind. Your camera angles are: really close on a tribesman, farther away from a slanted angle, and then really far away at more of a slanted angle. There is no ability to just scroll out however far away or close you want, which is probably what a mouse wheel would allow you to do. The general movement of the camera is a lot clunkier and more sluggish than a mouse would be, and a mouse is much more accurate than analog sticks for placing a cursor. The game works well on the 360, but something tells me the PC version will be the definitive version once it releases.
The graphics is one of the areas that the game really does excel. The art style is very unique and evocative, as long as you keep the camera panned back pretty far. Zooming in too close reveals some pretty clunky animations on your tribesmen as well as a bit of muddledness in some of the textures. But if you keep the camera panned back, and take in the sights in their totality, it is a sight to behold. It really is pretty impressive to see the physics and nature engine of the game at work. Water realistically flows across terrain and reroutes itself based on the earth around it. Water can slowly erode away land bridges, pour over them as you create your own waterfalls and spew out from natural geysers around the environment. Watching your first tsunami, and then even surviving said first tsunami with one of the first powers you obtain, is a truly amazing sight to watch.
Most of the sounds in the game are more or less forgettable, there is music that keeps things from being too quiet most of the time, and a lot of the sound effects are pretty appropriate. When a volcano erupts or a tsunami starts to come, you definitely feel it happening. The cut scenes are voiced in a made-up tribal language, with subtitles in order to immerse you more into the foreign world you are governing. The language is pretty interesting to listen to and can be pretty funny. The noises the little tribal people make when they get stuck or need help getting somewhere, or are in trouble, or what have you, is INCREDIBLY annoying. Which brings me to the topic of AI…
The AI is pretty much all around terrible. While traveling to totems, they should theoretically take the path of least resistance that is also the quickest. Instead, they like to travel in large arching paths that circle around entire islands at times, or when there is plenty of room for them to progress across to another island, they decide to stop and scream for help. Overall, it is not broken, in that they have a sense of where they should be going, but if you are assisting them in reaching a goal, you will be hard pressed to go longer than 30 seconds or so without hearing that yelp and them stopping dead in their tracks for whatever reason. Which brings up another issue, the made up language is great and all, but unclear symbols and weird yelps do not adequately identify what the issue is. Sometimes, I wish they would just say: “Yo breath, this path is too narrow, widen it.”
Another one of the major gripes I have with this game is the fact that the first couple levels pretty much lay out the template for the ENTIRE game. After a while, it really gets repetitive and there is an extreme spike in difficulty near the end that seems to artificially extend an otherwise lacking and overall short experience. The missions keep you going just so that you can see different terrain setups and every map is worth experiencing just because of how unique the gameplay can be, but there is no real replay value at all. Once you complete each map, you can return to try and master it or unlock more information on the “History of the Tribe” but without a level editor/creator or sandbox mode, your options are limited once the game is over.
In addition to the story mode, is the challenge mode. There are quite a few challenges for you to experience and a lot of them are really interesting and unique and can really make you think outside the box. Overall I enjoyed the challenge mode maps more than the story mode because they did not always force you to follow the same generic template and instead had more unique objectives. The game really could have used some type of level creator or editor mode, the ability to share maps and upload user missions, as well as some type of multiplayer component. Had the game included these features, the replay value would be significantly higher as would the actual enjoyment, as you could mix things up by trying out different facets of the game.
Overall this is a good game that is coming at a good time, it is fresh and unique with some really innovative mechanics. You should definitely try it out if a living breathing world you can tinker with sounds interesting, and just watching the world adapt to your changes is really fun. The lack of a sandbox mode, level editor, poor AI, no multiplayer and some clunky control decisions hinder this otherwise fresh experience. It is said that multiplayer should be added eventually, but it might be a separate release and require another purchase. The game is out for XBLA now for 1200 MS points, should be out for PC sometime this month and eventually is coming to PSN as well.
Let us know your views of the game below in the comments!
This review was based on a retail download copy of the game for the Xbox 360 provided by Ubisoft.