From Dust: review

From Dust is a great big bundle of ambition. Its incredible use of physics presents the shifting ways of nature with an uncanny amount of believability, and the entire premise is filled with potential. It’s a shame that its creators had to turn it into a game.

A group of wayward tribesmen have awakened a strange entity known as the Breath, which you take control of right off the bat. You’ll hover around the mysterious lands in the form of a glowing cursor, camera far above, blessed with the gift of manipulating the elements. You can scoop up water, earth, and lava whenever you happen upon a source, morphing it into a sphere and spreading it wherever you wish. Instantly novel and impressive, simply rearranging the world to your liking is satisfying in its own right.

Finally, a decent sandcastle-building simulator.

Lumps of sand can be used to redirect rivers that slosh with startling realism and begin to flood the shore in real-time; lava will trickle from volcanoes, spreading with convincing movement and allowing you to build walls out of the quickly cooling molten rock. Before you know it, the entire landscape will have dynamically changed before your eyes, transforming beyond recognition in a matter of minutes. Interacting with it is stunning – but it’s not much of a video game on its own. That’s where the villagers come in.

You see, these fellows have a mission: build villages around totems scattered throughout the land and guard them until escaping via an underground passage. Guiding them from totem to totem (some of which grant abilities such as turning water to solids or increasing the amount of matter you can carry) provides a demanding goal on your part as you struggle to keep nature at bay. At best, the puzzle-like circumstances will invite creative tactics, whether you’re using water-filled fruit to put out fires or piling up mountains to fight back floods. It’s an awesome power trip to part the sea and drain the lakes to protect the defenceless people with your godlike powers. 

Oh, look, everything's on fire again. I'm just going to go shove the Xbox in a meat grinder, don't mind me.

At its worst, however, From Dust becomes a frustrating act of futility. The villagers have passable AI in general, and floating trails do wonders to let you know where they can and cannot go, but sometimes they just stand around like numbskulls for what appears to be no reason at all. While you’re frantically trying to adjust minute details in the ground to fix their “broken” bridge while a tsunami rages on the horizon, that power trip is wiped off the face of the earth like the villages you failed to save, forcing you to restart from scratch. To make matters worse, a boring cutscene must be endured every time you start over.

You certainly won’t play for the story, which mostly consists of rudimentary monologues about nature. By spreading plant life across the levels you can unlock Memories and challenge maps, the former of which turns out to be nothing more than dull pieces of lore with the latter being tasks that force even more specific requirements on you. The final level, interestingly enough, is at heart a sandbox that gives you total freedom and the power to shape the mountains themselves, which might have been a better route to take the whole product.

This is when From Dust is at its best: no villagers, lots of awe-inspiring scenery.

The trouble stems from the actual gameplay: it isn’t very good. From Dust’s strength lies in the glorious terrain-bending physics; not in fretting over a bunch of expendable inhabitants. Despite the beautiful presentation and (at times) fascinating situations, the game stumbles over contrived mechanics and aggravating unpredictability. Factoring in the steep price point, consider putting a toe in the water before getting swept up in the tide.



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Written by Stephen K

A lover of video games in general, Stephen will happily play just about any sort of game on just about any sort of system, especially if it's a platformer or an RPG. Except sports games. Sports games are boring.

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