From Dust has a story in that it attempts to provide a barebones explanation for who or what you are playing as and why you are trying to help the little tribal people. You play as The Breath, who was summoned through the powers of the breath of man, music. As The Breath you control various elements and you'll need to use and combine them to assist the villagers as they ascend from world to world. As much as I love stories that slowly play out and let you discover the details instead of dumping it on you , I never found myself wanting to progress forward for the narrative as much as to see what new mechanical twist the game was going to throw at me. Reaching certain milestones and collecting totems on the map, unlocks Memories of the Tribe and challenge maps, which, like codex entries from Bioware games, serve to flesh out the story a little more if you are interested in it.
As The Breath you have the power to pick up and place dirt, water, lava and some of the local flora. In order to enter the passage to the next level you'll need to settle a village at all of the totems on the map. The puzzles begin simply enough, like using dirt to make little bridges across water, but soon you'll be dealing with tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and all manner of other hindrances. Sometimes it will be the simplest of problems; you can't instruct your people to make a village if there is any water around the totem site and with the tide coming in and water eroding your dirt walls you'll have to use some quick thinking to move on. As you settle totems, some of them will unlock a power for you to use on that map. Jellify Water will turn every body of water into a Jell-O like substance, letting you part the sea like Moses or hold a massive flood in place. The villagers themselves can get in on the action as well; you can send your shamans to collect powerful songs that will protect the village from lava or water. It can be quite enjoyable to mull out the solutions, and the "ah ha!" moments of figuring it out never stops being satisfying.
Unfortunately you're going to need to suffer a bit for that fun, as for most every moment of brilliance there are small numbers of frustrations. The three issues I fought with the most were the controls, camera and the AI. From Dust suffers from some of the same problems that have plagued most strategy games on consoles, and I constantly caught myself thinking how much better a time I would probably be having if I wasn't wrestling with my controller trying to lay down a smooth and even wall or selecting a specific object. One keymapping, which asked you to pull both left and right trigger to dump your entire currently stored element on the spot only worked once or twice for me so I simply stopped using it all together.
Then there is the camera which has two settings: too far away to make any fine detail changes and too close to get the big picture. So you are forced to constantly swap between the two, and it really left me wishing for a variable and controlled zoom.
Finally, there is the AI and path finding for the tribals. Sometimes it gets the job done, but other times you'll be cursing the little guys and contemplating dropping a ton of lava on their village just to teach them a lesson. The path finding can be incredibly picky sometimes as to what it considers a climbable incline. So instead of doing cool things like reshaping the environment to your will, you're forced to babysit some guys heading to make a new village because they are too dumb not to stand right next to lava, which has a tendency to burn them to a crisp. From Dust could have used a better balance between the fun godlike environment shaping mechanics and the more personal gameplay of caring for the villagers.
At least it will look nice when they all die horribly though, as the world and all its substances behave realistically and organically. Watching the water ebb and flow, while eroding dirt to form natural rivers or seeing lava slowly creep and cool is a visual treat. Elements also drop with a degree of automatic shaping and terrain smoothing, so your hill actually looks like a hill instead of some deity's upturned clump of dirt. Graphically, everything stays remarkably smooth even with the land shaping and shifting with various calamities and elements interacting with each other. It's so lovely that a village or two will probably get destroyed as you're marveling at the graphics while you shape and redirect the flow of lava.
Bottom line: At first impression, From Dust might look and play more like a tech demo than an actual game, but there is some enjoyment to be dug out of the experience. From Dust combines some fun mechanics, with great visuals and some satisfying puzzle inspired gameplay.
Recommendation: As a cheap downloadable game, From Dust is a worthy purchase even with its flaws. Buy it if you're a fan of puzzles, god games or just want to watch a tsunami and volcano eruption beautifully destroy a tiny world.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version.
Justin Clouse wonders why more religions don't include their deity's do-overs and mistakes.
Game: From Dust
Platform(s): PC, PS3, Xbox 360