We’re often warned about the dangers of playing god, but that didn’t stop me from genetically engineering the horrific abominations I keep chained up in my cellar and it didn’t stop me from buying and really enjoying god game From Dust.
Released digitally on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC in 2011, From Dust was designed by Eric Chahi – the designer of classic sci-fi adventure game Another World – and developed and published by Ubisoft. The game casts you as a god tasked with leading your followers through a series of levels via the use of environment manipulation and a growing selection of supernatural powers that further your mastery over the game’s three controllable forms of matter: earth, water, and lava. (To anyone looking for a name for their Earth, Wind & Fire tribute band: you’re welcome).
Each level of the game’s story mode sees you watching over your nomadic tribe of followers in a different area, from a desert to an island chain to a volcanic crater and more, your goal being to complete one or more objectives and unlock the gateway to the next level. Villages are built up around totems, some of which need to be colonised in order for you to gain a power necessary for completion of the current level, and success can’t be earned simply by sitting around and watching your people – rather, you’ll need to guide them between important locations while also protecting them from natural hazards such as tsunamis and erupting volcanoes, which often occur at regular intervals in a level. Apparently, Mother Nature really isn’t a fan of your people.
While the first few levels of From Dust ease you into its world and gameplay mechanics, the difficulty increases as you progress, placing more emphasis on strategy and timing as you try to keep your followers alive while simultaneously keeping an eye on the current level’s end goal.
Assisting you in your efforts are the unlockable powers I mentioned above. Your followers need to cross a stretch of water? Jellify it and watch them walk across. A wildfire raging towards a village? Use your “Put out fire” power and the flames will disappear. Need to pick up more matter than you can usually hold? The “Amplify the Breath” power lets you do just that. There are several other helpful powers alongside these, and later levels will often task you with smart use of them if you want to progress.
As well as your own supernatural powers, useful environmental objects appear in some levels, such as moveable plants which react in different ways, some exploding when close to lava, leaving a crater, while others can unleash a torrent of water, useful for putting out fire or cooling lava. There are also special totems which can protect your villages from water and lava, as long as one of your followers can survive the journey from their village to the totem in question and then back again.
Other features of the terrain are more hostile – some areas are covered in thorny vegetation which your followers can’t cross unless you remove it, and geysers of water can erupt from the earth should you dig in the wrong place, which can cause chaos as the erosive effect of the water from one geyser unearths another, and so on.
Although there isn’t a huge amount of depth to From Dust – no insane, “Christ, I’ve wasted 3,000 hours of my life”, Minecraft–esque levels of world-crafting here – the above elements and the different ways in which levels play out add variety and keep things interesting, which means that even the longer levels don’t outstay their welcome. It also helps that the most fundamental gameplay mechanic – the manipulation of earth, water, and lava – never gets old. It’s always fun reshaping and messing about with the terrain, whether you’re simply diverting the course of a river or building a rocky cliff out of cooled lava.
From Dust also contains playable content beyond the thirteen levels that make up the story mode, namely a challenge mode consisting of thirty unique challenges. Although the general gameplay remains the same in both modes, the challenges are more direct and fast-paced, designed to take much less time to complete than the story levels, although some are very difficult despite their brevity. The game records your completion times, which you can then compare against those of other players via the online leaderboards.
On a side note, the title of one particular challenge is “Xuenylom”, a reverse-spelling of the surname of Populous designer Peter Molyneux, this being a tribute to the classic 1989 god game which is a major influence behind From Dust.
Some challenges are unlocked via the story mode, specifically by covering enough of a level’s terrain in vegetation (trees and grass automatically spread if you give them the space to do so) before you move on to the next level. As well as challenges, this also unlocks “memories of the Tribe” – pieces of text that flesh out the mythology of the game world. Although none of these are essential, they help in adding depth and replayability to the story mode.
Graphically, the game isn’t particularly impressive in terms of its level of detail but its overall aesthetic does work very well, with scenery ranging from parched deserts to crystal-clear seas, from primordial storms to hazy skies filled with falling volcanic ash. Combined with the impressive physics of the water, earth, and lava, the environments really contribute to the atmosphere and immersion.
The camera usually operates from a partially top-down view but you can zoom in for a closer look at ground-level by locking the camera onto one of your followers, and although this shows up some of the limitations in the animation and graphics, it’s nice to be able to see the world which you’re manipulating from on-high from the point-of-view of your followers. And if you have a twisted sense of humour, there’s plenty of amusement to be had in locking the camera onto an elderly tribesman and watching him limp for his life as an oncoming tsunami looms large in the background. Not that I ever did such a despicable thing myself. Obviously.
Although music is an important part of your followers’ society, as seen by how they play musical instruments when protecting a village or when they reach the gateway to the next level, music is used sparingly in From Dust. In fact, music only plays during cut-scenes, menu screens, and, interestingly, when you lock the camera onto a follower for long enough. Although there isn’t much of it, the music that is used possesses a mysterious, tribal feel that fits in well with the rest of the game.
The only area in which From Dust falls down with noticeable regularity is in the artificial intelligence of your followers. Because even if you’re a loving and patient god, there will very likely come a time during the game when you’ll be tempted to drown or burn the little bastards yourself for being so bloody stupid. For example, you might command a follower to move to a lava-protection totem to gain its power, only to watch them take the most hazardous route possible or get stuck on seemingly nothing, forcing you to intervene. It would be nice if you could rely on your followers a little more, especially at critical points when the survival of one of your villages might be at stake or if you’re aiming to complete a challenge in the fastest time possible.
My only other negative point concerning From Dust isn’t actually a flaw within the game at all but rather a testament to its quality – simply, it’s a shame that the game hasn’t been expanded upon beyond its original release. Although From Dust offers a decent amount of content for a download-only title, the game has a huge amount of potential for expansion in terms of features and mechanics, new and improved gameplay elements that could build upon the great fundamentals established in the initial release. However, since its release in 2011, there’s been no sign of any such new content, either in the form of downloadable content or a full-blown sequel, and this is a real shame.
One of the main reasons I wanted to write this feature was because of the occasional comments I’ve seen online lamenting the death of the god game genre, which made me think that perhaps From Dust had passed a lot of people by, which would be unfortunate, especially if they were fans of the genre. Returning to one of From Dust’s major influences, Populous, the former is certainly not the first game to be influenced by the latter, and as well as this being no bad thing generally, in some important ways From Dust is a worthy spiritual successor – certainly more so than the flailing, disingenuous mess that is Peter Molyneux’s current god game Godus.
So if you’re a fan of any of the Populous games or god games in general, From Dust deserves your attention. It’s a great game that honours what came before it while simultaneously offering its own entertaining and immersive spin on the genre. And even if you’re not an existing fan of the genre, the fundamental mechanics of From Dust are fun and user-friendly enough that they can be enjoyed by anyone.
Go play god.
Alex De-Gruchy is a writer and editor of fiction and non-fiction whose work has covered comic books, prose and video games. His 8-issue comic series The Fallen, from publisher Monkeybrain, is currently being published on Comixology, while later this year will see the release of his graphic novel Dead Men from Markosia Enterprises. His upcoming video game projects include action / strategy title Crystal Arena, visual novel Eternal Forest, and sci-fi roguelike The Traveler. Marvel at his occasional nonsense on Twitter: @AlexDeGruchy