Also available on: PlayStation 3, PC (later this year)
Developer: Ubisoft Montpellier
Genre: God simulation / Sandbox
From Dust is the second game to be released as part of the Summer of Arcade on Xbox Live and is hot on the heels of the wonderful action RPG Bastion. Directed by Another World creator Eric Chahi, From Dust is a modern day version of the classic god-sim, a genre which has largely died out in recent years and is begging for rejuvenation. Thankfully, Ubisoft Montpellier has done just that, and From Dust is another title that encapsulates the enjoyment and innovation that has made the Summer of Arcade an event to watch.
From Dust puts players in charge of a sphere which has the ability to vacuum a variety of elements such as sand, water and lava, and disperse them across the land. The aim is to guide a number of tribesmen to the totem poles that are spread across each map, by creating walk routes, drying out puddles, ponds and lakes, or preventing rivers and streams of lava from engulfing the humans and their settlements.
Reaching a totem pole gives birth to a new village, while certain poles and artefacts contain knowledge and powers able to protect the player from natural disasters such as tidal waves and fire. An early example sees players suffer extinction after an incredibly large and powerful tsunami swallows the land. Players can protect themselves by sucking up gallons of lava and releasing it onto the mountain top to form new rock and a protective wall from the waves. Gathering knowledge from artefacts serves as a narrative of sorts, and learning about the laws of the land and its history is an interesting take on the usual cutscene-heavy productions we are used to.
Once players have formed all possible settlements on a map, they can make their way to the portal-style exit, often needing to use powers such as evaporate or jellify to carve a path through huge lakes of water. The controls are very simple and intuitive, and can be picked up by anyone, which gives From Dust a definite relaxing quality. Elements can be sucked up and spat out with the trigger buttons, powers are unleashed by pressing the D-pad, while highlighting a point of interest and pressing a button sends the villagers on their way. Players can approach and shape each map any way they see fit, which makes From Dust a sandbox title in the truest sense.
Another of the game's biggest strengths is its magnificent, yet somewhat understated, visual style. From Dust contains a collection of stunning landscapes and features a host of truly breathtaking environmental effects. In particular, natural disasters such as tidal waves and volcanoes are as staggering as they are scary, and you can't help but admire the colossal scale and sight of such catastrophes - even when they result in the doom and destruction of your villages. The majestic visuals begin with a trickle of water and grain of sand and extend to the spectacular mountain ranges and lush green villages. Quite simply, From Dust is a fantastic looking game from top to bottom.
Perhaps one small criticism is that there is a slight lack of elemental and geographical variety, a problem which will hopefully be rectified in future instalments or downloadable content. There are also a few relatively minor and infrequent issues with the camera, which can be a little fiddly and doesn't always afford players the god-like omnipotence necessary to spot that last puddle of water or pool of lava. The tribesmen themselves occasionally get stuck for no good reason and fail to move to more accessible routes, which can prove problematic in the face of a monumental tidal wave or bubbling volcano.
Fortunately, however, none of From Dust's faults are particularly irritating or infuriating. The casual, relaxed nature of the game - despite the odd cataclysmic countdown - means that most players will be more than happy to tackle a level again, or spend the time reshaping the land into something safer and more sustainable for its inhabitants. In fact, it's often just as pleasurable and satisfying to revisit completed levels (which are left intact) and take the time to spread vegetation and revitalise barren corners and crevices.
Further replayability comes in the form of a comprehensive challenge mode, which contains more than 20 short levels, often with one simple objective. The quicker you complete the challenge, the higher your score on the Xbox Live leaderboards, which gives From Dust a surprisingly competitive, multiplayer element. While not as compelling as the main campaign, figuring out the secret to completing a challenge and utilising your limited powers, speed, skill and smarts, is extremely gratifying and some of the later stages are incredibly taxing.
From Dust is a fantastic game and another reason to embrace digital downloads. Ubisoft has captured humankind's insignificance and futility in the face of the elements and created a game that addresses ecological equilibrium in a fun and exciting way. From the tiniest trickle of water to the largest tidal wave, or the smallest grain of sand to the biggest mountain top, every element combines to make From Dust one of the most beautiful and compelling games available on Xbox Live Arcade.
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