After nearly two months of waiting, Ubisoft’s From Dust makes its much-anticipated debut on Sony’s PlayStation Network. This literal sandbox game inspired by PC classic Populous brings the God genre back from a long hiatus, with some interesting twists to boot.
It’s not fair to start talking about From Dust without clarifying what is actually meant when referring to this game as a sandbox – in the loosest sense a sandbox game allows you to go everywhere and do anything. In From Dust, you are literally in an area akin to a box containing sand which you can move and shape as you wish.
And that is the core mechanic of the game. Using your god-like powers as The Breath, you have limited control to reshape the terrain presented to you by moving sand, water, and lava to create paths or remove dangers facing the small group of indigenous tribesman as they try and complete their objectives.
A path has been laid out to them by The Ancients. So powerful were these ancients, that they were able to erect massive stone totems with mystical magical powers. The ability to repel the elements, evaporate water, and put out brush fires are some of the gifts endowed to the tribesman that settle villages around them. After repopulating each totem, a portal is opened showing the tribe to their next destination and their next challenge on the way to meet the Ancients.
This is the main gimmick of the game: instead of having one big map or a randomly generated map for you to explore and conquer over and over again, From Dust has separate and distinct levels with different challenges for you to overcome. It starts off easy enough; ask the tribe to move to a specific totem pole, perhaps move some sand so they can cross some water. It quickly gets a little difficult though, as even with your godly powers, you’re still a servant to nature. A running river will erode a sand bridge, lava will build a volcano higher and higher and over any walls you may have erected to protect a village, and flash floods will drown your village when it rains.
These are never random occurrences though; the village Shaman will warn you with a timer of when these events transpire, giving you time to find a solution. You could recover the two charms that repel water and lava if the map has them, or jellify the water with a totem power so that the tsunami never comes or the water level never rises from the rain. The greatest asset you can have in this game is patience, whether it’s the patience to start a level a few times to figure out the best way to set up your first village, or the patience to take stock of your surroundings and plan your next move based on the tides or recharge time of your powers.
Even with this patience, at times the formula can be quite frustrating. A few levels seem to need a bit of trial and error, and difficulty will sharply spike at times. Tribesman won’t be able to cross a bridge you made as the sand is a pixel or so too low, costing you precious time. However, the main story is not agonising in length, taking about five to six hours to complete the 12 or so levels. This is where the challenge mode steps in.
The challenge mode takes the concept of From Dust and further condenses it. Whereas before you had a map and over 20 minutes you’d beat it after overcoming a series of obstacles, the challenge mode starts you off with a single challenge with some specific rules on what you can do as The Breath and asks you to finish it in the shortest amount of time. For example, in the first challenge you can control water, and you need to put out a fire spreading across the vegetation. Simple enough stuff, and earlier challenges like this will take about 20 seconds. Later ones, however, can frequently extend into the minute territories.
These bite size chunks of the game are really quite fun, and extend the life by another few hours if you’re not too bothered about filling up each story map with vegetation to unlock vague tribal memories (or more importantly for some the Trophies to go with it).
It really is a very charming game. The pseudo, non-specific, “greatest hits” of tribal religion mixed with the art style and minimal story really gives the game a unique identity. While there may be some problems with the difficulty, and the payoff of the short story mode is slightly underwhelming, From Dust definitely brings something fairly original to the table that really has its moments.