Review: From Dust (Xbox 360)

From Dust
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Ubisoft Montpellier
Genre: God Game Sandbox.
Released: 07/27/11

The annual Xbox Live Summer of Arcade has been going strong now for a few weeks, with some games that have caught many peoples eyes. The latest one to come out is From Dust. I hadn’t expected to get this one, it didn’t really seem like it was my kind of game. Shall we see if I was right?

Story:

So it goes like this. In olden times a people known only as the Ancients could control the elements. They have since left this existence but the tools they used to control the environment are still sitting there, unused. If only the primitive tribesmen who discover them can learn to use them.

That’s really about it in terms of story. The narrative is passed along via cut scenes before and after each stage. Accomplishing certain objectives on each stage also opens up a History of the Tribe bullet point which can be found in the pause menu.

Graphics:

The game is played from an overhead, almost third person perspective. Your orb, called “The Breath” moves freely over the game map and the camera can rotate around it completely. During the campaign the camera behaves itself pretty well, but in some of the challenge maps it can windup being either way to close or miles away, making controlling minute things difficult.

The game world is fairly good looking. It’s not anywhere near Crysis or even Far Cry in terms of lush jungle graphics but considering all that they let you do with the environment it looks quite acceptable. My only complaint in this regard would be anytime it rains. It just seems unrealistic. Whatever right? I know.

The terrain in this game is completely malleable, assuming you have the right powers at the time. This can involve digging a trench or it could involve draining a lake or it could involve building a volcano. The game is a geologists playground. One particular level starts with a volcano bubbling just beneath the surface that starts to grow. It’s not sudden, but by the end of the level you’ll likely have a mountain on your hands instead of a mole hill. I am amazed at the things you can do here. It’s like Red Faction‘s terrain deforming on a whole new scale.

Audio:

The audio is a little lacking here. There are noises for just about everything in the game but I don’t know that I would call it captivating. The story is told by a tribal elder who speaks in a language that isn’t English, with captions below for us all to read. The powers you command are inspiring to look at but sound a little cheesy. But then who is to say what a God would sound like? Maybe a floating orb of energy really does sound like sucking water out of a cup with a straw when it’s consuming something.

For the most part what you are going to hear during this game is people screaming in terror and the sounds of calamity, as volcanoes erupt and tsunami’s crash. The terror sounds genuine, but the natural disasters not so much. Perhaps the terror was recorded during crunch time.

Lastly one of the skills your people learn involves playing music to convince the elements of the earth to leave them in peace. So for example during a Tsunami the village would start playing their drums and wind pipes to erect an invisible wall to stop the water from destroying them. They can learn another song for fire and lava. These songs resemble what I heard during the most recent FIFA World Cup, with plenty of droning pipes. I’d say they did a pretty good job there.

Gameplay/Controls:

So the story and audio have been less than mind blowing. That’s OK, because here’s where it gets good. The world of From Dust is entirely yours to play with. Once you learn the basics in the first mission you are given new powers every time you advance.

From the start you are given the ability to pick up sand and move it around the map, depositing it wherever you feel like. You can pile it up as high as it will go before gravity tears it down, you can build walls, land bridges between bodies of water, whatever you desire. Later on you can pick up and deposit water in the same manner, though with no ability to stack it, and then again later still with lava. You also gain the ability to interact with the plant life in the area. This can be watering the ground to allow sand to be turned into fertile soil (making you feel like the Sultan of Dubai), or it can be picking up some of the specialized plants that can be found on this world to help contain the forces of nature naturally. For example there are trees which gorge themselves on water and burst when fire gets too close, acting as a natural fire suppressant. Then there are trees which burn continuously and can be used to reclaim ground currently near shore but under water. Lastly there are some plants which will explode when heated and can thus be used as demolitions to remove rock or big chunks of the ground when things like ditches are required.

Some levels only grant you access to certain powers, but this is no great shame, as it allows the player to see just how cool each of the powers can be. So if you played one level and could evaporate water and now cannot in the next, don’t look at it negatively. Instead look at it as a way to learn what the powers you do have access to on that map can do. I will say it would have been neat to replay levels with customizable powers, but more on that later.

Each map in the story will typically have 4 settlements for you to command. Each settlement is built around a Totem which will give you access to a different power. Much like an RTS you usually build up your first base before expanding and reclaiming the others. However you don’t build up your base so much as you find the song stone on the map which will enable your village to defend itself from Water and or the one from Lava. While that’s happening you usually have to take a more direct role in protecting the village by using natural landscape features to build Dams to prevent flooding and or establishing firewalls to redirect lava. Or you must help the villagers who are running off to learn those songs by building them bridges to get from one place to the other and back. Or you have to do more than one thing at a time. It can get pretty hectic at times. And that’s not even mentioning what you have to accomplish in Challenge mode.

I sometimes found myself wishing that I could collect more than one tree at a time, as some levels require moving 10 or 15 around in a given time. Also while you do gain the ability to temporarily enhance how much dirt or water or lava you can pick up at once, and also gain a spell that can give you unlimited dirt for limited periods of time, the way you pick up and drop things like dirt can become tedious. A more obvious way of telling you that you’ve reached your quota on stuff you can carry would be lovely. And though there is a way to drop everything you have instantly, it was only after playing half the game wondering why it wasn’t working that I figured out you had to press one button before the other instead of both at the same time, like the game tells you.

Replayability:

There is no multiplayer mode here in From Dust, nor do I think one is required. Multiplayer would just invite other people into my sandbox to mess with my hard work. Instead by accomplishing goals in story mode you unlock challenge mode maps, where you must use all the skills you have learned to defeat challenges in limited amounts of time, often in ways that just don’t occur to you right away. One challenge has you sitting around for a couple of minutes before giving you even a hint of whats to come, and then bam it’s over before you can blink. In fact as I went through the challenges it occurred to me that the best way to pass them was to just fail the challenge the first time, so you know whats coming.

You can also go back into the levels you’ve completed in the story mode, and they will be just as you left them. or you can restart any map from the selection screen.

Balance:

The game can get pretty difficult, but it does ease you into things. You don’t have to repel volcanic lava and tsunamis right away. They save that for a bit. Towards the end you’ll wonder what the hell is going on at times, what god you’ve angered, but then you realize you’re the deity in this game and go to town. And the final stage. Wow. What can I say? Expect crazy.

In challenge mode things naturally get more challenging. They didn’t call it easy mode now did they?

Originality:

Well, pickings are slim when it comes to Sandbox games which are actually sandboxes. You could say that the game is similar to the Black and White series on the PC, but I’ve never seen anyone do this kind of game on a console. The physics alone means you couldn’t do it on anything older than this generation of console.

Addictiveness:

I just started the game up again to confirm my thoughts on the audio and save files, and then I blinked and 2 more hours had passed. This game will devour your free time, and you’ll love watching it happen.

Appeal Factor:

Do you sit and watch Discovery Channel and The Learning Channel to see shows about disasters? You know, shows that talk about what happened when Mount Vesuvius erupted or what might happen in California when the big one hits? If you do then this game will be right up your alley, as being right in the thick of things like that, and seeing what happens when you can take a hand at influencing them yourself makes for a very entertaining experience.

Miscellaneous:

I’ve heard it said elsewhere that the game can be a bit boring at times. I can’t agree. Yes you have to wait on your villagers. And yes you have to wait on your powers to recharge from time to time. This just helps make the game challenging, and should help you understand the difference between you and the villagers. Villagers who seem to be a bit needy by the way, always demanding your help. Now I know where that saying God helps those who help themselves line came from.

Lastly I will say that having unskippable cut scenes in this day and age, especially when those cut scenes are all entirely identical except for minute differences is just unacceptable.

The Scores
Story: Mediocre
Graphics: Above Average
Sound: Mediocre
Control and Gameplay: Great
Replayability: Good
Balance: Great
Originality: Unparalleled
Addictiveness: Unparalleled
Appeal Factor: Great
Miscellaneous: Good
FINAL SCORE: VERY GOOD GAME

Short Attention Span Summary:

While it’s not for the impatient and does make you think more than the typical game, I have no problems recommending you buy this for the 1200 Microsoft points, as it is beyond being worth the money. Now when is the DLC coming?

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