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From Dust

16:5726/07/2011Posted by Simeon Paskell2 Comments

If the saying ‘Mighty oaks from little acorns grow’ is true, then the oak that grew out of the acorn of the God game genre is now looking a little gnarled; it’s not that fans of God games haven’t been well served – with the likes of Populus, Black and White, heck…even The Sims, all holding a special place in many gamers hearts; it’s just that the flow of original ideas has been fairly stymied of late. Stepping into this antiquated arena is veteran designer Eric Chahi (of Another World and Heart of Darkness fame) with the downloadable From Dust – but does the game have the chops to stand up the Gods of old, or does it mark the point at which the genre finally kicked the omnipresent-bucket?

Glancing over the screenshots on this page, it would be easy to dismiss From Dust as just another God game – there’s the standard aerial viewpoint; the gaggle of tribesmen running around topographically rendered landscapes; the villages hugging the hillsides… To the untrained eye it all looks fairly run of the mill and, dare we say it, rather easy to ignore. To do so however would be a huge mistake; it only takes a few minutes of watching From Dust’s in action to twig that this is something very special indeed.

At the heart of the experience is the concept of environmental simulation; lying at your Godly feet is a world that adheres to the physical laws of the elements that must be wrestled into shape in order to achieve your goals. So, using your cursor (or, ‘breath’, as its known) you can hoover up and distribute dust, suck up water and lava, and ultimately conjure up earth to create situations that allow your quirkily-masked tribesmen to gain control of temples which in turn give you – and your tribesmen – additional powers. You ultimate goal in any given level is to obtain occupy all of the levels temples and then send you people to a final exit gate.

The degree of control you have over the tribesmen is actually very limited; you can point them in the direction of temple, but aside from that they are pretty much autonomous. Discoveries of new powers – such as the ability for tribesmen to repel water and lava – migrate automatically from village to village, as long as there is safe route for sage elders to pass on the knowledge. This is quite a change from many of From Dust’s God game predecessors, but works extremely well, emphasising your position as unseen deity and cementing the feeling that the tribe’s culture is growing organically.

From Dust’s biggest success is the realism of its environmental simulation engine; witnessing water sloshing about your world, volcanoes erupting into life, brush-fires breaking out and sweeping across your hard-won territory and tsunamis rolling in over the horizon is usually nothing short of breath taking. In fact, it is so believable that it’s hard not to feel like a small child in sand-pit playing God with the lives with ants. It is, in many ways, the ultimate and most literal sand-box game we’ve ever played.

As you play the game and your experience grows, you gradually get to grips with the characteristics of the various elements and new ways to implement them begin to emerge. For example, should the land masses you’ve constructed keep getting washed away, a quick dab of lava will solidify them to rock. Similarly, lava can be used to shape protective walls around the pinnacle of volcanoes, guiding the flow of lava in desired directions. Water can also be scooped up and used to fight brush-fires.

God games are largely perceived as being quite dry affairs in which meticulous planning and patient implementation of these plans is key to success. In From Dust, while it is usually important to structure your activities, you often find yourself in a state of frantic panic, as earth, fire and water (in their various forms) are flung at you and demand to be dealt with thereby making From Dust as much a game about reactions and reactive multitasking as it is about enacting well laid plans.

The result of this dynamism is a game that is hugely satisfying on a macro-level (as your plans bear fruit) and utterly gripping minute by minute, as you can never be entirely sure what new problem will confront you. The complexity and authenticity of the environmental simulation also means that no two games on any given map will be the same, with the tiniest of variables impacting on the outcome. It’s like having the chaos theory play out on your screen – where that theory suggests that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can cause a hurricane in Texas, in From Dust, a small pile of sand in the wrong place can send a torrent of molten lava rampaging towards a village.

For a 1200 MS point title, the amount of content included is also mightily impressive; the main campaign being a lengthy and beautifully well rounded experience in its own right and once you’ve polished that off there’s also a challenge mode that puts the games mechanics to an impressively varied – and often more light-hearted-range of uses. One level, for example, sees you escorting your tribesman across a slanted island, frantically sucking up torrents of water that put them in danger of being washed into the ocean. Many of these challenges actually feel more like an arcade experience than po-faced deity simulator and make for nice, bite-sized distractions that will keep you playing for some time.

From Dust does have a few rough edges – there were occasions when huge spikes of lava unexpectedly thrust their way out of the ground, and the route finding of the tribesmen wobbles on occasion, but such problems are few and far between and can thus be easily overlooked. What you’re left with is a near perfect example of ‘less is more’ – there are few gimmicks, no statistics to track, no titan-sized creatures to train or resource quotas to fill; it’s just you, the resources that you can see, the tempestuous world you govern and the lives of the people who inhabit it. It’s pure, ambitious, rewarding, challenging, surprisingly visceral, utterly engaging and proof positive that from even the basest of materials, genuine wonders can be wrought.

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