From Dust is no god game

, | Game reviews

From Dust does an admirable job with a seemingly simple task that has confounded videogames for a long time. Namely, the physics of dirt and water. Some would consider this a god game. I consider it SimArmy Corps of Engineers. Lots of rerouting rivers at which point you realize, oops, that’s not what you should have done because now your city is being flooded. Or building walls to protect your city from a flood only to screw up and realize you didn’t build it high enough or in the right place. Or failing to appreciate how much the volcano is going to erupt or how the plants are going to react or where the trees are going to grow. You’re not quite a god so much as a civil servant undergoing on-the-job training. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a game.

Unfortunately, From Dust is not a very good game that happens to be even less good on a console system.

After the jump, the didgeridoo that From Dust does

Beyond shoving dirt and pouring water, puzzles occasionally involve bomb trees or water catci as a diversion. You usually just set a waypoint for your modest and mostly invisible population and wait for them to get there. You can zoom in if you want to see their funky masks, but you mostly know they’re there by the didgeridoos and whatnot they play. As your population reaches the waypoints in numbers as high as five at at time, you unlock powers like putting out fires, freezing water, or picking up bigger handfuls of dirt. You mostly do this in the exact order you’re supposed to do it, or you start over from the beginning. From dust, as it were.

From Dust is occasionally spectacular. The first tsunami is quite a sight. The tenth not so much. By the time you’ve seen twenty, they just look like blue walls and you can’t help but wonder why they impressed you before. And don’t get me started on the hot lava. When it comes to the hissing spectacle of lava and water colliding, this is no Pixeljunk Shooter. But credit From Dust for its title, which sounds far better than what it should have been called: Black and White Lite, Populous Minus, Fracture Without Guns, or The Part of Spore Where You Lost Interest.

A short campaign presents you with some supposedly open scenarios, that will only feel open once you’ve tried some of the unlockable challenges. These challenges, many of them ruthlessly timed, are more Incredible Machine than god game, but with dirt piles instead of levers and water pouring instead of gears. Again, this isn’t necessarily bad, except for two things: From Dust doesn’t look very good, and it doesn’t control very well.

I suspect both of these issues might vanish entirely if you play on a PC, where you can crank up the graphics and bring a mouse to bear. Until then (August 17th!), you’ll wrestle with the camera and cursor far more than any cerebral challenge. The view is spoiled by aggressively blurred distance, arms-length camera restrictions that presumably make you feel more god-like, and details that comes and go based on how you’re tilting the camera. It’s been a long time since I played a game on the Xbox 360 and so keenly wished I was playing it on the PC.

What’s more — and this is the real killer for me — these little people wearing funky bird masks and playing didgeridoos mean nothing to me. I have no idea how they work or what they’re doing or who they are or what they need or how to make more of them or whether I even need more of them. As it is, I can barely see them, and they don’t do anything but walk around. Sometimes they have a kite. I’m mostly aware of them when I’m waiting for one particular dude and the pathfinding betrays him. He rams himself into an impassable cliff and beseeches me to do something about it. But I can’t. Sorry, dude. I’m not that kind of god.

In fact, I’m not much of a god at all because this isn’t much of a world at all. It’s not even a community or an ecosystem. At certain points related solely to unlocking new puzzle scenarios, From Dust announces the arrival of new life because I’ve dropped a certain amount of sand onto the map, allowing trees to grow, popping in and out of my view based on whatever level of detail calculations are going on. So now some vaguely beetle shaped lumps scooch about without purpose. There. Life, or something like it. Like I care. Maybe when I can see better what they are on the PC. Until then, From Dust offers me the experience of being a kid with a bad eyeglasses prescription and poor motor skills playing in a pile of dirt and listening to the faint sounds of someone somewhere playing a didgeridoo.

1 star
Xbox 360