The Xbox Summer of Arcade is in full swing, with From Dust taking up the second spot in the promotion following last week's strong release of Bastion. A "god-game" from designer Eric Chahi, best known for the absolutely stellar Out of This World, From Dust has some high pedigree to live up to. And though you play From Dust as an omniscient deity, the game's real focus is on the raw power of nature. Tsunamis, volcanoes, earthquakes are your unslayable foes as you protect your tribe, often in vain, in their search for their ancestral homeland.
From Dust takes place over a dozen different environments as you guide a masked tribe to settle the land. You play as The Breath, the tribe's favored deity, making you're their guardian and giving you basic mastery over the elements. As their guardian, you can instruct the tribe to build new settlements at designated totems, as well as tell tribesmen to find artifacts scattered across the land. This isn't a game of micromanagement though, once you give the tribe an instruction they will carry it out on their own. Your real job as The Breath of the tribe is to use the elements to help the tribe accomplish those goals.
Using the left trigger you can pick up dirt, water, or lava, then place those elements with the right trigger. Dirt forms land, which can act as a land bridge across water or to cover rock with tree-bearing soil. Water forms pools, allows plants to grow, puts out fire, and can erode through soil. Finally, lava forms rock when released, which can be used for land bridges or to help direct the flow of rivers and volcanoes, but it also sets nearby plants on fire when first placed down. It is using these three elements that you must construct safe pathways for the tribe to follow, as well as restore life and vegetation to the desolate land.
Despite your best efforts as a deity, nature has other plans. Territories are regularly subjected to tsunamis, raging volcanoes, flash flooding, and forest fires, often with all of them occurring simultaneously. The artifacts I mentioned earlier can grant settlements protection from water and fire, but must first be found and brought back to the settlement by a vulnerable tribal shaman. Each settlement also provides additional powers for The Breath, such as extinguishing flames, evaporating all water, and "jellifying" water to prevent it from flowing with currents. The latter is especially useful for parting bodies of water Moses-style or stopping tsunamis in their tracks. These powers are activated using the D-pad, and have long cool down times after their temporary effects ware off, making them a useful last resort but not something to be relied on.
When at its best, From Dust brings back fond memories of the rocky Maine beaches I grew up on. I remember building sand castles among the tide pools, rushing to complete one before a large wave washed it away. In an impressive technical feat, water realistically eats away at the soil you place in From Dust. Often I would build a wall out of dirt to direct the flow of a river, only for the river to carry the dirt into deltas downstream just as I remember water carrying sand on the beaches of my youth. Of course, this meant that the area I tried to protect was flooded in the process, but as my tribe drowned I realized I only had myself to blame for underestimating the natural forces at work.
If From Dust were only a sandbox in which to explore how the elements interacted, I would have no difficulty recommending it as a game everyone should experience at least once. However, that is not the case. The tribe is often the source of far more frustration than anything else they add to the game. As I mentioned before, there is no way to micromanage the tribe, which is a shame because their default pathfinding and AI is some of the worst I've seen in years. When confronted by any obstacle, such as a river, they will stop and call for help, or try to find a new path if possible. That's good in theory, but not so much in practice.
The problem is that the available path is often a time-sensitive situation from tides. I became stuck in one early level when my tribe got stuck in an infinite loop of getting blocked by the tide, venturing off on a new path, the tide opening their original path, then finally the tribe returning only for the tide to come back in and block the original path again. And if even a small drop of water interferes with the totem they are directed to you cannot select it, which also means you cannot cancel the order to go to that totem. It is also impossible to order a shaman to bring powers, such as protection from water or fire, along with the initial group that forms a settlement, and must wait for the settlement to fully build before the shaman is automatically sent. Or sometimes tribesmen will simply stop for no reason at all and beg for help when they are on flat ground without any obstacle in sight for miles. Combine these issues with the frequent and violent weather conditions, and more often than not I simply wanted to abandon the poor fools to the fate Darwin would have prescribed.
From Dust also has the distinction of one of the worst final levels I have ever had the misfortune of playing in a videogame. Apparently From Dust's developers thought it would be a good idea to have the last level change all of the controls and replace them with new and unfamiliar abilities. That probably seemed too easy and satisfying for them, so they went the extra step to introduce an entirely new cataclysmic condition that had no precedent in the game. For an apt game comparison, imagine if Sid Meier's Civilization turned into a real-time strategy game when you reached the space age, allowing opponents to move freely while you're still constrained to a grid. Or imagine if the final level of Halo were suddenly a turn-based RPG, but since you hadn't been gaining experience throughout the game you face the final Kefka-esque boss while still at level 1. The first three times I played the last level, I assumed it was one of those impossible levels that you are required to lose because it just seemed so obtuse and inconsistent with the rest of the game. I did finally beat it, on my ninth attempt, but had I not been playing for a review I would have given up around the fourth or fifth attempt, never to play again.
Aside from the main story there are also 30 challenge levels to play through. Several of these challenge levels are unlocked by playing through the story, but many are also available right from the start. These challenges are much more focused and puzzle-oriented than the main game, tasking you with specific goals using a limited set of abilities. Because the challenge levels are focused on only one ability at a time they feel much more structured and add nice variety to the more freeform gameplay of the story campaign. The challenge levels also are supported by leaderboards, adding a competitive element as you compare times with other players.
From Dust is an absolutely gorgeous game with some of the most impressive weather effects seen on the Xbox 360, and I don't just mean on Xbox Live Arcade. Few games can compete with From Dust in displaying the raw power of nature through such convincing gameplay. But for all of its technical marvel, it's the technical details that also bring the game down, with abysmal AI and a bafflingly bad final chapter. When it works, From Dust transports me back to a seven-year-old boy playing in tide pools and reveling in how perfectly the natural world fits together. But when the game hits a snag, I'm instantly yanked back to the cynical world of computer glitches, frustrations, and unfulfilled promises.
A review copy of From Dust was provided by Ubisoft for the purposes of this review. It is available on Xbox Live Arcade (as of Wednesday, July 27) for 1200 MS points. I played the game for 8 hours, completing the story mode and seven of the 30 challenge levels.