From Dust tells the tale of a primitive people who have forgotten their history. They see great totems erected by the Ancients, and it is through the work of these forgotten ancestors that they have survived. It could make a fitting allegory for the game itself and its place in the modern gaming market. From Dust pays homage to Populous and the nearly forgotten "god game" genre that left an indelible impact on the sim and strategy games that followed.
With a little more work, From Dust could have been a new classic.
Its creator, the inimitable Eric Chahi, is certainly one of gaming's forgotten Ancients. In 1991, he almost single-handedly created the cinematic platformer Out of This World, a timeless work of art and game design that stands as one of the best of its day. He followed with Heart of Darkness, which spent an unheard of six years in development, before disappearing from the industry altogether. After well over a decade, many had assumed we had lost a great talent to other pursuits, but it seems Chahi just needed time to find his inspiration.
In a much-welcome break from the norm, Chahi has been allowed to return to the industry with the respect of an elder statesman and not an aging relic. Nothing about From Dust feels like an indie game. Ubisoft has placed him at the help of a team from their Montpellier studio, a world-class developer by any measure. Although it is strictly a downloadable title, it's really quite beautiful, with strong art direction and detailed, dynamic environments that would look right at home in a retail game. Ubisoft has even done a good job of adding visual variety between the levels, with lush jungle stages interspersed with arid deserts, rocky volcanic mountains, and watery island levels.
The Breath, your playable diety, is a limited sort of god, and his only adversaries are the rhythmic machinations of nature: volcanoes, tsunamis, and quakes that reshape the very foundation. These disasters occur like clockwork on a timer with a countdown, rather than at the whim of another diety. Like Populous, From Dust allows you to shape the landscape from above, but unlike the deities of Peter Molyneux's classic, The Breath cannot create or destroy land, he can merely pick up soft material - soil, water, and magma - and place it down elsewhere to aid his worshipers. Instructing them to build villages at preexisting totems will unlock limited-use powers that recharge over time. Some of these powers are pretty interesting, like the ability to temporarily turn water into a gelatinous solid, allowing you to recreate The Ten Commandments and carve paths through the sea for your worshipers to walk across. Another unlockable power allows your villagers to repel water around their village, even as a tsunami washes over them.
Each stage has several totems and an exit. The object is simply to construct a village at each designated location and then send five villagers to the exit. Despite its god game conventions, From Dust has an overlying puzzle foundation that forms the basis of its challenges. Although you are constantly warring with the forces of nature, the levels are very scenario based, and one can't help but feel like there's a little bit of Lemmings or The Humans spirit to the gameplay. Much of the challenge comes not from any kind of resource management, but from figuring out how to use the powers available to reach different totems, and in what order the totems' powers will be needed. Challenge Mode, a series of timed unlockable levels with specific goals, further reinforces the Lemmings vibe.
While this puzzle aspect is interesting, one can't help but feel that struggling only against the landscape itself and timed disasters is limited. The first half of the story mode is simple, feeling at times like an extended tutorial. As the game grows more complex and the challenge ramps up, the gameplay is really a lot of fun - so fun, in fact, that it's hard not to recognize the untapped potential.
There is no competitive game to be found, either against a human or a computer-controlled opponent. Most - but not all - of the framework seems to have been laid for an excellent competitive game, but there is none to be found. This really robs From Dust of the kind of staying power and replayability that could make it a new classic. Chahi has suggested that Ubisoft is saving this for DLC or a possible sequel should the game sell well, but for now its omission is glaring. Even a basic sandbox mode like the original Populous would go a long way towards adding replayability.
From Dust is a game that remembers its forefathers without following in their footsteps. Scooping up powerful elements of nature and dropping them around the map is undeniably fun, and the tasteful presentation is an artful reminder of the fragility of man. With a little more work - a sandbox mode, multiplayer, and maybe a level editor - it could have been a new classic, but instead we're left with a refreshing change of pace that will eventually erode as the waves of new games wash over it. Ubisoft is not generally quick to abandon a game with untapped potential - look no further than Assassin's Creed if you doubt that, so one can only hope that enough people notice the most unique game in the Summer of Arcade lineup to merit further expansion.