The name Eric Chahi may not mean much to some out there, but to others his was the vision behind Out of this World, a genius title that broke all the rules of gaming back in the early 90’s. Now, after a lengthy time in the shadows, he walks among us once again with the release of From Dust.
The game sees the player cast in the role of the Breath, a spirit guide which has been summoned by a tribe that has long since lost their way in a desolate world. By invoking the Breath they seek to learn the knowledge of their ancestors that is hidden away in totems scattered amongst the lands. The player’s job is to guide them on their quest and to literally shape their destiny.
Upon starting there might be a slight sense of disorientation amongst those familiar with the god game genre, since there is never any direct control over any member of the tribe. Instead the Breath shapes and deforms terrain like a more interactive version of the old landscape modelling tool, Bryce 3D. With a press of the right trigger anything from dust to water and lava can be gathered up and dropped with a flick of the left trigger. And while the goal is to help guide the tribe to regain their identity, there is also the quest to spread vegetation; to take the title in a literal sense and make life `from dust` by introducing water to parched desert, etc.
While some might bemoan the fact that there is no direct control over the various tribe members, this misses the point somewhat. In From Dust the player is the educator, the mentor that has complete control over this dominion, to instruct and guide the tribes people in their quest.
Upon entering new areas the tribe are directed towards a totem and once five have gathered at its base a village will be constructed and their powers unlocked for the Breath to use. The first of the powers learned is the ability to withstand a tsunami that threatens to wipe out the newly-formed village. From the ability to turn water into jelly, or to temporarily dry the oceans that rise and fall around an area, there is an abundance of powers to be harnessed. Also found in and around the landscape of any given area are memory stones that require paths to be forged from the surrounding landscape for the tribes’ Shaman to learn and then spread their lessons by returning to villages.
While all of this might sound like a dull lecture in ecology, or worse some kind of eco-hippy hogwash, what makes From Dust such a compelling experience is the expert blend of design and accessibility. Here is a title that can be played by anyone, such is the simplicity and approachability that permeates throughout. And it’s far from a shallow experience by any stretch of the imagination. Many hours will be lost in the fantastical world From Dust creates as the balance between managing the correct levels of terrain, water and ensuring that the tribe not just survive, but actually thrive, is always a precarious one. There is always a better way to play the game, the golden path if you will, and it’s not unusual for the player to find themselves daydreaming of new and interesting ways to attempt levels, such is its lure.
It also helps that there are some luscious landscapes to experience along the way, as From Dust is quite the looker in terms of graphics, furthering the setting and atmosphere. Water cascades and undulates or rises to tsunami levels, while lava spews from active volcanoes, helping to create the feeling of nature’s raw power raging all around. The incredible tribe design, with their distinctive masks, further accentuate the aesthetic, complete with a narration style and the exquisite work that art director Bruno Gentile has contributed.
Not everything is rosy in this particular garden however. It’s control method, while perfectly adequate, can feel sluggish at times, exacerbating the feeling that a mouse and keyboard would make navigation, selection and general control an all round better experience. Not a game breaker as such, but it can certainly take a bit of adjustment.
From Dust is an intriguing and unique update of a genre that has fallen out of favour of late. The player will certainly be drawn in with the superb setting and look of the game, but will find themselves staying for the journey the game takes them on, making for a satisfying experience.