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Review: From Dust

FROM_DUST_S_003_Landscape

(Note: For the purposes of the review scores, Combat translates as "Environmental effect management")

As much as I would prefer if I wasn’t reviewing yet another XBLA download title (PC and PSN releases are on the way ), I’m reassured by the fact that this is the most immersive and polished game I have ever played for a download title. You’ve already heard about me mistaking it for a full-price title, and after playing it I can honestly say: “If you didn’t know otherwise, you would make the same mistake”.

From Dust (in case you missed my preview article) is a god-control strategy game set in a series of islands which are afflicted (and occasionally, blessed) with a variety of environmental disasters and obstacles. Your role, as a powerful nature spirit known as “The Breath”, is to safeguard a primitive and paganistic tribe of villagers who are seeking the ancient knowledge of their ancestors. With control over water, lava, sand and foliage you have the power to protect them from the enraged elements. And, although they may seem simple at first, through the game you discover the natives have a rudimentary (and visually stunning) control over the elements  themselves, a form of magic known as “Music”.

And that’s basically it. The levels are bracketed by your tribe moving forwards through doorways on each map (think Lemmings), which can only be accessed after each village point (marked by some really awesome animalistic totems) is safely occupied.

As I quickly learned, founding a village is easy – protecting it from raging wildfires and sudden tsunamis (not to mention underground springs and not-so-dormant volcanos) is the hard part.

But as my villagers lay dying (seared from lava, exhausted from swimming back to shore after being washed to sea, drowned, buried, exploded or some mixture of the above) something changed for me. It stopped being about whether or not each individual villager survived (apologies to the many, many, of you who were sacrificed for the greater good) and started becoming about one man (or god in this case) against the physics of the world.

I’ll explain further. I’ve seen people complain about this game saying they found it hard to grow attached to the villagers. And I agree. They are unintelligible, uninspired (note: in the capacity of intelligence, the design of them is quite inspired and I loved it), slow to react and often seem hell bent on their own demise. But that first moment when I discovered that by diverting a river several hundred meters up from my village (compared to right next to my village) I could dry out a whole plain of land, I knew this game was something else. Don’t even get me started on the time I diverted a river on top of an active volcano. That was an experience I’ll take to my grave.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that for me, while the survival of the villagers was an ok motivator to get to the next level, the real inspiration and joy I took from this game came from seeing each new level and wondering “How can I fix this?” “How could that place ever be inhabitable?” and “How much will this map change before I am done?”.

Ok touchy-feely stuff done. Back to the details.

From Dust is visually stunning in almost every capacity, boasting some of the best graphics I’ve seen on a console game to date (and this coming from a 15$ title!). The tsunamis are gigantic and when they roll in you get a great sense of impending doom. Similarly when a volcano erupts, you feel it. And if you don’t feel it, your village feels it. And if your village feels it… well they are probably already charred corpses.

The physics are remarkably accurate, as I said above. You can divert rivers successfully or waste hours trying to block one to no avail. The same goes for lava flows or for growing vegetation. And this accuracy is at the same time the best part of From Dust and the hardest part. Many times have I successfully diverted a river (and on my unluckier days, a volcano) from one village only to find I had destroyed another. And as I found out after a solid 3 hours on the fourth level (partially played by me, partially played by my brother), sometimes you are just screwed and have to start again. While I welcomed the challenge, I can see how some people would find it tedious.

From Dust made me feel like I was playing a fully developed game and getting my money’s worth, and getting 100$ value from 15$ is a very good feeling.

That being said, there are a few underlying hints that this game  is an Arcade title after all. The storyline consists of around 10 levels (somewhere around 3-6 hours of play) with a further 30 challenges or so (adding another 1-3 hours on top). There are reused sounds constantly (Village is being built? Cue native music. Village is being flooded? Cue native music. Village on fire? Cue native music. Cue native music? Cue native music.). Occasionally the pathing for the villagers can turn a bit eccentric (requiring you to build a different hill/bridge/route/whatever the hell it seems like they want), and the ending (no spoilers) doesn’t exactly seem like it was written by (uhh… which guy did good endings again?) M. Night Shyamalan.

But every time I compile a list of faults that I would hold against this game if it was a full-price title I keep coming back to the fact that: it isn’t a full-price title!

From Dust is a jaw-dropping, eye-watering, amazing game which makes you feel both a god, with control over everything at your fingers, and a child, putting out fires desperately as they appear and hoping as hard as you can that it will all work out. It made me feel like a genius when I sneakily diverted a river or built a mountain or created a plateau which made an ideal village location and made me grind my teeth at my own stupidity while my village burned, drowned or generally fell apart. Usually due to my own intervention.

If this was a fully priced console game I would say: “Wait until it gets reduced to about 50$ and you will get more than your money’s worth, you will probably play it religiously for a week or so and love every minute of it.

As this is an Arcade title instead I’ll say: “Buy this NOW! Before Ubisoft realises that what they have is genius and goes above and beyond what an Arcade title used to stand for. It redefines what a $15 dollar title can offer (similar to Infinity Blade redefining Iphone games) and it’s an experience like no other.”

And, regardless of what it is, I’ll leave you with this:

From Dust is a game like nothing I’ve played before – and I loved every minute of it.”

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