A warm feeling came over me minutes into From Dust. Firstly, there was the music that accompanied my introduction to a chapter; a brilliantly put together orchestral piece that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Hollywood blockbuster. But my main thoughts were drenched in nostalgia as From Dust gives the player the chance to shape and control the very sand, water and other elements of beautiful islands, similar to the classic, gaming master piece, Populous.
Of course twenty years have passed since the mighty Populous and the real star in From Dust is the awesome, technically-advanced physics that allow your god like hand to craft the island with almost effortless sweeping gestures. Gather up sand from one spot to change the direction a river flows, but if you take too much then attrition could quickly change the entire island’s dynamics, as your water flow erodes weakened riverbanks and floods villages.
The game is a beautiful puzzler where you are charged with aiding strange tribesmen in their search for lost and knowledgeable ancestors. Leading the tribesmen to totems, large stone blocks placed almost at random around the maps, by providing land bridges across rivers or removing lakes to get to an island within an island. Once a totem is secured a village will be built and you will gain an extra power to help you in your control of the elements. These range from jellify water, water turns to jelly for a period of time enabling your tribesmen to walk across it, through to hold back tidal waves, which does what it says on the totem. Get all the totems on a level under your control and your villagers can be pointed towards a gateway where they open up access to the next level. This happens only when you choose, so if you are having fun with a particular level you can just carry on, but be warned, sometimes the island can get out of hand as terrain morphs beyond even your control.
When such mastery of physics is constantly demonstrated it is a surprise that villager pathfinding gets the better of From Dust. You do not have direct control over the villagers, only being able to suggest where they head to and then keeping the way clear for them. On more than one occasion my villagers stopped short of their goal when I had practically combed their route flat until I eventually drowned them out of frustration.
My main gripe is that From Dust feels more like a developer’s sandbox, used to test the beautiful and powerful physics of a much bigger, not yet built, game. The plot felt irrelevant and I quickly lost any interest in getting my villagers from A to B, often getting halfway through a level to discover it was unachievable but I was the proud owner of a very tall volcano swimming pool. On one hand this is cool and the other, somewhat pointless. So as Gaming Soothsayer I tell you this, From Dust is a way to pay for the physics of a much more interesting game still to be made. This is how Ubisoft and many publishers have been working these past few years. Create Assassins Creed 1, an awesome freerunning engine, with little else. Sell AC 1 and Ubi can afford to add the next layer of the game, the story and plot. Then add in multiplayer in Brotherhood and so on. Excellent business acumen and everyone gets what they want.
The reason for the huge delay in this article is because of the endless back and forwards between Ubisoft and myself as I tried to get them to allow me to run the game on my laptop as well as my desktop. They treated me with suspicion from the outset and before answering any of my concerns demanded to see a copy of purchase invoices and serial codes. This was going on while pirates had full reign to do with From dust as they pleased. Ubisoft are currently the worst for poor DRM decisions and customer relations, which Game-Debate finds very surprising considering the carefree and positively fun nature displayed by their E3 presence. I still do not know what the outcome is with my copy of From Dust as the customer service support simply stopped responding to my query.
A highly innovative, half sized game that’s thought provoking, peaceful but let down by poor DRM and accusing support network. A real shame.