The story begins with stormy, violent seas battering a group of weathered cliffs. Sat on top is a crowd of ant-like figures, huddled in a circle, wondering what on earth to do next. As an ancient tribe who has forgotten their purpose and history, they set out to explore the lands around them, looking for traces of their past. As the opening shot suggests, nature conspires against them, and so they call upon a deity (that's you, by the way) to help them survive their journey, repopulate the land and give them a reason for being.
From Dust is the latest game from Eric Chahi, the creative force behind cult 16-bit platformer Another World, and this title shares a similar fondness for foreign landscapes and mysterious narrative. While it comes across as a strategy title, or more accurately a god game, such labels conjure up thoughts of complexity and micro-managing, and From Dust is inherently very simple. With its adventure split up into stages, the goal is to keep the tribes people alive as they capture various totems around the landscape before reaching a portal-like doorway at the end, all while avoiding natural disasters and other obstacles in their path. It takes more inspiration from puzzlers like Lemmings rather than anything overly strategic like Populous.
From the objective to the controls, there's a great sense of clarity and ease in playing the game. To move your tribe onward, you select the destination (a totem, rock or doorway) and they'll automatically find their own way there. A white streak will snake its way through the landscape along the safest route, and can turn blood red when there's an obstacle in the way. While simplicity is a strong suit, its sandbox nature is the definitive selling point, with the world's many geographical elements ready to be redefined as you see fit. Again, it's pleasingly simple to do so: with the left trigger you can collect dirt, scooping it up and suspending it in the air, which is then ready to be deposited with the right trigger. Deep blue waters and viscous lava can also be lifted from the map, with the liquid substances floating as a giant, pulsating globule until you decide to drop it somewhere.
While there's a solid level of bedrock that can't be shifted, the elements above it are freely manipulable, allowing you to sculpt passageways and create protective barriers in order to help the tribe reach their destination safely. An early task is to create a path through a still body of water, something that's easy accomplished with a thin streak of dirt to create a bridge. Trying to do the same with a raging river is a different story, however, since the current will eagerly worm its way around the deposit and continue its trickle downstream. You can eventually win the war with nature with copious amounts of dirt, or alternatively, travel upstream and nudge the river off its current course, sending the water down a different route and out of your way.
Another trial has you defend a low-lying village from waves crashing over nearby mountains. With an erupting volcano nearby, depositing lava around the village will create solid rock deposits, raising the height of the mountains and thus shielding the village from the relentless assault. While certain trials have a defined approach, others are a little more freeform, such as a high-altitude lake that can be drained by manually scooping out its content and dropping it into the sea, or collapsed at one side so the water trickles out gradually. Water can also be used for defensive purposes, too - if a villager is swept away and is washed out to the coast, you can create waves by dropping water in front them, which will send him back in the opposite direction.
Elsewhere, certain stages have natural disasters to contend with. An early example is a tsunami that threatens an entire map, flattening settlements and raising the water level to the extent that only mountain tops are visible. Once the tribe has established the first village, a timer counts down to indicate when the next powerful wave arrives. To protect the settlement, you can gain an ancient power hidden inside a rock further up the mountain - one of the game's many supernatural elements - that will then coat any populous areas with a forcefield, saving it from harm. Another power allows you to jellify water. Once claimed from a specific rock, the user can can mould water like dough for a limited period, allowing it to be a self-contained, non-trickling mound on land, or used to stop fast-flowing rivers in their tracks and be parted aside, creating a dry path on the riverbed. And when that tsunami rears its ugly head once more, you simply can freeze that in place too.
It's not all about survival, though. While the core objective is to see you establish villages and reach the end doorway, you can also help populate the world with lush vegetation. Once the first village has been founded, greenery will then spread outward across the surrounding area, and by connecting isolated plains with channels of dirt, you can soon fill the world with exotic plant life and rudimentary animals. As well as the zen-like pleasure of cultivating the spread of fauna and flora, completely converting the rugged landscape will unlock more secrets about the tribe's history. Those that choose to focus on the main quest can always return later to find the stage restored to its last state, which can then be played with for as long as they wish, essentially acting as a free-play mode.
Although Ubisoft is keeping tight-lipped on what natural disasters, obstacles and story revelations face players later in the game, the foundations in place are incredibly solid. While its sandbox concept is in many ways familiar, the effortless controls makes it far less intimidating, and its tactile and playful water physics can result in some truly dynamic outcomes, requiring a holistic approach to ensure your tribe reaches its goal. Like Chahi's previous works, there's a beautiful, mysterious air that surrounds From Dust, making it one of the more interesting downloadable releases of the coming year.
From Dust will be available on Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network and PC this summer.