Eric Chahi’s latest Populous inspired god game could definitely be described as a patriarchal experience. Your role as an omnipresent deity sent to guide a band of tribal travellers to prosperity and advancement definitely inspired some parental feelings within us. We always had the best intentions for villages yet on occasion they were flooded, burnt to a crisp or overwhelmed by rivers of lava. However despite all this From Dust still maintained its oddly serene and dare we say it, profound atmosphere.
From Dust takes place on ten different islands where the aim is for your band of tribesmen to spread their ways to different totems in each scenario to form new villages and eventually make their way to doorways, often far away from the totems, to a new scenario. The kicker is however that there are always topographical hurdles to manoeuvre or avoid and it’s up to you to rearrange the lay of the land via moving soil to create bridges, soaking up water or guiding rivers away from dry passages, plugging springs and neutralising lava flow.
Gameplay sounds really simplistic, but when playing it never feels like that, as you witness the world changing in real-time in accordance with your actions. For instance most areas start off as arid and lifeless, but as you start moving water around and your tribesmen begin propagating the world, you’ll notice plant-life spreading, as long as there’s plentiful access to water, and when appropriate strange friendly creatures will begin moving around the wilderness. These creatures don’t have an impact on proceedings, but seeing your hands-on approach transform the world for the better is genuinely exciting.
The graphics feed nicely into this sense of wonder and achievement very nicely with beautiful vistas and scary natural phenomenon such as volcanoes sufficiently emulated to dramatic effect.
The control scheme betrays the game’s heritage as being made for Microsoft’s Kinect peripheral, but the transition to a keyboard and mouse doesn’t bring up any issues. In fact we’d say it’s much better, as you can precisely control how much you want to warp the scenery by clicking, holding and letting go the left mouse button.
And this precision is definitely needed towards the latter stages of the game as the scenarios get very difficult often requiring multiple playthroughs to figure out what exactly went wrong. Alongside your all-powerful status you also get access to abilities such as infinite soil, evaporation and other impressive skills to get ahead, but the nature of some of the levels means that it’s easy to get into un-winnable situations. Thankfully the restart scenario button is only a couple of clicks away, but facing seemingly insurmountable odds can sometimes defuse the serene atmosphere the game works so hard to build.
The introduction of stimuli-affected plants makes this feeling even more common and you need to carefully evaluate where to put flame trees so they don’t start fires, while at the same time ensuring water-filled cacti don’t flood your village when faced with oncoming fire. It all feeds into the game’s naturalist message proposing just how fragile ecosystems are, but it can feel like a cruel mechanic at times.
Unlike other strategy games, From Dust always adds in a new element in each map to shift up the challenge and even though the campaign can be rushed through in around five hours this game is still worth experimenting with. Challenge maps are unlocked as you beat each of the thirteen levels and there’s an in-game wiki that gets padded out in relation to your performance to learn more about the game’s tribal setting.
Overall From Dust is a very thought-provoking and fully featured experience, the sort of which you can understand why it took Eric Chahi so long to get to market. It’s a shame that the clumsy draconian DRM approach neutered this game’s launch so effectively at the end of last month. However now the effort has been patched, allowing players to store their saves locally thus no longer needing to an active internet connection to play the campaign, we hope that this fantastic experience gets some of the positive attention it well and truly deserves.
An accessible and profound strategy experience that’s as enjoyable as it’s brave. Everyone, regardless of genre preference, should give From Dust a try!
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