Xbox live and PSN have proved to be a great place to delve into a different world within gaming. As mainstream titles looks to assault our senses with over the top action, large explosions, and worlds so large that traveling from one corner to the other could take hours. Mainstream games are in essence trying to consistently become bigger and badder than what has come before. The digital market however, has aimed to remind us of a simpler time in gaming. Many of the games on the digital market have innovated upon older gaming conventions and added a sense of artistic flair that continues to prove that gaming can be an art form. From the platformer puzzle games that entered into dark surrealism such as Braid and Limbo, to an action RPG title that introduced us to an ever evolving painted world in Bastion, and to now a beautiful serene landscape that gives us a Populous for our consoles with From Dust.
The point of this introduction is to talk about the last game mentioned here; From Dust, which recently saw release on the virtual consoles during this year’s Summer of Arcade. As the virtual console has become more mainstream many of the titles I mentioned above have become legends and have set the bar for what to expect from the market. How does From Dust stack up against the likes of Limbo, Braid, Bastion, and all the others that have helped bring the indie scene to a higher status amongst gamers?
From Dust is in essence a god game that in practice becomes one of the most beautiful and intriguing physics puzzles that I have ever played. The point of the game is simple; the player is presented a number of small locals with the goal of leading a nomadic tribe through dangerous terrain and assisting them in growing their civilization and discovering the history of their people. The player takes control of the breath of god, which is a large ball of power that is easily controlled with the analog sticks and has the power of picking up a certain amount of terrain and putting it down elsewhere within the landscape. The simple mechanic of moving around water, sand, and later lava to make bridges or clear an area of pooled water is where the physics shows its weight.
From Dust has some of the best water mechanics I have ever seen in a video game, and often the water itself acts as the big puzzle within the game. The small areas that act as the playing field of each puzzle are full of flowing waterfalls that continue to fill the world with a rushing stream of water, the flow of which the player must divert in order to properly reach the next totem or exit that eventually presents itself. The totems are large obelisks which, when reached with a certain number of villagers, will become the center of a village that they create. Watching the small nomadic tribesman dance around the obelisk and play their instruments to create their crude homes and the plant life which surrounds it from the ground is a wonder to behold. They literally pop into creation from the ground below, summoned into existence by a mysterious force. This act of creation is especially awe inspiring when you pull up close and watch these actions take place from the perspective of your villagers.
Reaching these totems and spreading plant and wild life around the terrain is the heart of each level. Beyond the act of diverting the flow of water from water falls or jet streams that randomly appear as you gather up sand, there are large obstacles of nature that continue to increase the difficulty of the game with each passing level. The jet streams mentioned above made for one of the more frustrating puzzles, but volcanoes, and tidal waves will also act to wipe out your tribe and present you with a game-over screen.
The difficulty does spike a bit quickly in From Dust, forcing the player to really focus on how everything works within the landscape. The level of physics which the player must deal with during these spikes is something that I doubt many players will be prepared to take into consideration at first. With some patience and toying around however, the player will soon discover how much has gone into the creation of the game. Lava flows from volcanoes in a way that simulates life to a tee, and watching lava move down an area and eventually hit water and dry into solid rock is impressive to behold. Creating rock paths is far more useful than sand paths, since sand can be eroded away by water and eventually break down to cause some damage to your progress.
A thing to keep in mind about using lava to create rock paths is something a player can easily forget, it is lava, and it lights things on fire. Lava can escape your grasp as you release it onto a sanded or rock area while trying to place it in water. This will cause small amounts of molten destruction to flow towards a village and destroy it without the player knowing it has happened until screams and a visual prompt lets them know. There were many times I would be in the midst of controlling the land and diverting the flow of a nearby waterfall so it will no longer interfere with my goals when I would hear screams and think to myself “what now?” only to discover my civilization going down in a blaze of shame and panic. This issue, by the way, rears its ugly head on the third level and things progressively get more difficult, for example… fire trees. Screw fire trees.
From Dust is art in motion, the game itself is beautiful to watch and even during the frantic events there is something wonderful and calming within the chaos of nature’s force. Tidal waves rise up in dramatic ways and shake the entire land you play in. This action will constantly cause the player to stop and scramble to figure out what to do. The power unlocked by the totems give you new tools to use to complete the level, one of which causes the rushing water from a tidal wave to wash around an invisible bubble protecting the village. Zooming in on the villagers during these moments creates a sense of godliness that is as epic as any action scene in the biggest of mainstream titles.
From Dust is a game that continues to validate the existence of the indie market and the digital platform. Just as Limbo, Braid, Bastion, and many others have before it, From Dust proves the legitimacy of simple mechanics in gaming. It doesn’t always have to be about multi-million dollar budgets and over the top cinematics. A game can be great simply on tight mechanics and interesting art choices. It is difficult to experiment with mainstream titles since artistic IPs will often be overlooked (Beyond Good & Evil for example) for games that have an established name.
Final Call: From Dust is simply the best physics puzzle game I have ever played and even without much of a story, the plights of the villagers is felt, and the rush of panic you feel when they are in danger is real. Ubisoft Montpellier has released a near flawless title that should be experienced by everyone. None the less, screw fire trees… screw them in their firey tree-y faces.
- Tight and easy to learn controls
- Beautiful graphics
- Unmatched water physics
- Deep and rich puzzles
- A great value at only about $15
- Difficulty spikes can often feel unfair
- No real story worth focusing on
- Very little replay value