From Dust Review
From Dust is the first game that Eric Chahi has designed in over 10 years. As a huge fan of his past work (Out of this World/Another World and Heart of Darkness), I was very eager to give From Dust a try. What I found was very different than what I had expected.
In From Dust, you control a disembodied force that is trying to help and protect various aborigine tribes. In the story mode, your goal is to help the tribes create villages at set points on the map which will eventually unlock a gateway that permits travel to the next map. You also have the secondary goals of spreading vegetation across the land and finding secret points. You do all this by telling the villagers to travel to set locations on the map, absorbing elements like sand and water and depositing them elsewhere, and by using various spells. For example, if a river blocks your path, you might grab a big chunk of sand and place it at a specific point so as to redirect the river and allow safe passage.
From Dust features what is quite possibly the best depiction of water in any video game to date. The water looks amazing and behaves just like you would expect it to. It’s very fun to just mess around with the maps and see how the water reacts as you change the face of the landscape. And when a typhoon approaches a village and the villagers use the Repel Water spell, the results are breathtaking.
Unfortunately, just messing around with the landscape was the source of most of my enjoyment in the story mode. Simply put, the story mode isn’t very good. It walks an uncomfortable line between sandbox game and strategy game and doesn’t really do either justice. There aren’t enough options to make for a truly compelling sandbox game and the tasks that need to be accomplished in order to proceed aren’t interesting enough to make for a rewarding strategy game. Not only that, but the controls can be annoying at times – like trying to grab some water but grabbing sand instead because your cursor was slightly off.
To make matters worse, the game subscribes to the Braid philosophy of story design of “Tell, don’t show.” Most of the story is locked away in hidden paragraphs of text, with very little of the story coming up while actually playing game. Given that Eric Chahi has shown himself to be quite capable of telling moving stories without words in his past games, the fact that From Dust relies so heavily on exposition from outside the game itself is highly disappointing.
However, all is not lost! Though I found the story mode to be a disappointment, the challenge mode is a different matter all together. This mode contains a number of puzzle levels – maps where you are given a limited set of powers and a time limit and asked to complete a certain task. The first few levels in Challenge mode aren’t too exciting, but the difficulty and cleverness of the levels quickly increases as you go on. There were a number of moments where I thought I had the right solution but it wasn’t working out. Then I had an “Aha!” moment where I realized that doing something drastically different would provide a much more elegant solution to the problem. If that’s not the sign of a great puzzle game, I don’t know what is.
Whether or not you enjoy From Dust will depend on what you expect out of it. As a story-based strategy game, it is a failure. As a sandbox God game, it’s somewhat fun but lacks depth but as a puzzle game, it’s unique and even has moments of brilliance. Score accordingly.
From Dust come out tomorrow on XBLA.