(*****NOTE: This was published on my other blog on the San Antonio Current’s website, called the “people’s gamer”, on August 10th, 2011. I am re-posting it here to keep my personal and professional work in one place. If you’re interested, feel free to check out my other blog on some of the other video game writing I do. Hope you enjoy!)
After a short, yet relaxing vacation in the far off land of Houston, I finally managed to borrow a friend’s 360 long enough to play through a new XBLA title I’ve been hearing more and more about. From Dust, an independent endeavor by one of Ubisoft’s smaller studios, is one of those fairly uncommon ‘God’ games. If one remembers the Black & White franchise from years ago, From Dust is a definite cousin to its style, but still remains original in terms of visuals, landscape, and game play.
Unlike other God games, which give you direct control over pretty much anything in front of you, From Dust settles more on the idea of indirect power; rather than controlling the tribespeople that populate the game, you can only control the actual landscape around them. You can pick up earth from one location and place it somewhere else, or move water away from their village to guard it from tsunamis. Lava is your friend and enemy, as it can devastate your entire tribe in moments or be used to create more land to reach the next totem. At its heart, From Dust is a puzzle game, challenging you to protect the tribe as it moves from place to place without granting you the ability to directly control their movements. That’s what makes it both addicting and frustrating.
The landscape is the main character in From Dust. While you partake in most of the land’s bigger changes, the entire world is dynamic and vibrant all on its own. Oceans can be both gentle and menacing (tsunamis, remember?), volcanoes will sporadically erupt without warning, and your abilities are all that stands between your people and their quick demise. Don’t go into this game thinking a perfect game is achievable: Your people will die, and die often. This isn’t to say your omnipotence isn’t as good as it should be; quite the opposite, it’s one of FD‘s more existential moments when you start to learn that no matter how perfect you are, the world is not. Nature is unpredictable, and that’s where things can get annoying.
Toward the game’s latter half, the difficulty of each level is noticeably higher, as more nuanced godly powers come to your disposal. Since you don’t have control over the tribe, their movements can sometimes be erratic and a little sluggish when it comes time to move to the new location. Moreover, the last few levels have multiple solutions, all of which will require a bit of luck, ultimately. But these are small gripes about an otherwise beautiful and engaging struggle between you and the elements. Without a doubt, my lasting impression after finishing From Dust was one not of disappointment at its brevity, but over the feeling that I could have done it better. Perhaps I could have saved more lives or done it in less time, but when your enemy is Mother Nature itself, I suppose I should just be happy I saved some of them at all.
See you in the next level,