The "god game" genre hasn't gotten much love in recent years. Outside of a few releases like "Black & White" and, dare I say it, "Pocket God," it seems developers have lost interest in letting the player take on the role of an infinitely powerful deity. But I wouldn't start writing the genre's obit just yet. "From Dust," coming to XBLA tomorrow, is one of the most unique and intriguing god games I've ever played.
"From Dust" is set in what appears to be the dawn of the world. Volcanoes are constantly erupting, creating new islands, while tidal waves wash new land back into the sea. It's here that a small tribe of masked beings start their journey. They create a deity known as The Breath, capable of shepherding them through the dangerous pitfalls nature has in store. You play The Breath.
Despite being a god, you have very specific powers. You can never directly interact with your tribal wards. Instead you have power over the land itself. You can collect earth and create land bridges across dangerous rivers or collect water to deliver life-creating vegetation to the desert. Your objective is to help these tribals populate the land across a dozen environments, each with their own environmental challenges.
A True Nature Simulator
The engine in "From Dust" is a remarkable feat. If you were to start a level and just leave it for an hour, you could come back and the entire map would be different. Why? Nature would have taken its course. Water erodes sand, creating new rivers and channels. Flowing lava creates rock when it hits cool water, expanding islands and potentially blocking off new rivers which in turn cause new areas to flood, so on and so forth. It's fascinating just to sit and watch all of this happen, though if you're interested in actually succeeding, you'll have to take charge of the situation.
A Million Solutions To A Single Problem
Let's say you need to get your tribals across a rushing river in order to colonize the other side. An obvious solution might be to dig up some nearby dirt and create a temporary bridge for them to walk across, but that's far from the only solution. You could collect lava and create a more permanent bridge out of rock, for example. Or you could use that lava to create a dam, diverting the water somewhere else, leaving the lower part of the river dry and safe to run across. Or you could activate one of your godly powers, Jellify Water, which causes water to, well, jellify, letting you scoop it out like a solid, creating a safe (but temporary) path for your tribals to run through. I played through the main story twice, and my second time through each level I was able to finish the objectives using entirely different tactics.
In addition to the main Story mode, which features that open-endedness I just cheered about, "From Dust" also has a Challenge mode. Playing through the Story mode will unlock 30 challenges which are more like puzzles. For example, you have 30 seconds before a wall of lava obliterates a town...how do you save it? Unlike Story mode, Challenge mode levels often have just one solution, and you're required to use the engine in unexpected ways to complete your objectives. For example, how do you get a tribal from the top of a mountain to the bottom in under 5 seconds? Wash them off a cliff with a ton of water! Best. Slip 'n' Slide. Ever.
The worlds in "From Dust" are gorgeous to look at, which makes the ugly menus and UI all the more distracting. Instead of creative, subtle icons to indicate which powers you can use, giant text is jammed in the top of the screen. The menus, too, are pretty hideous and look like they were whipped up in a day. And really, "The Flintstones" font for the game's logo? C'mon guys. None of this impacts the gameplay in the least, but it does make the overall product feel cheaper than it should.
There are moments when you've got a limited amount of time for a villager to get from one side of the map to the other. You carefully clear a path for them to safely cross and they start making their way. And then stop. For no reason whatsoever. The path is clear and level but the AI just can't seem to figure out how to progress further. It doesn't happen often, but when it does happen, it can lead to extreme frustration as you may end up failing the mission due to do your stupid, stupid villagers.
Xbox Live Arcade is full of inspired remakes of classic games and genres, but few feel like they're breaking entirely new ground. "From Dust" accomplishes this handily, offering a deeper, more memorable experience than most of the god games that came before it. If you've got a desire for power and don't mind getting your hands dirty, "From Dust" is a must-play.