God for a day (or at least an hour), anyone has dreamed at least once to be Bruce Allmighty. Since in reality the chances are null, at least we’ve got the virtual world to escape to. From Dust tackles the “god game” concept, but in a different way from the Black & White approach or the life simulator called The Sims. The closest relative would be the Populous series, created by Peter Molyneux, where our control spanned from trees to citizens.
Still, From Dust only takes the shell of the idea, giving the feeling of an experiment with chances of becoming a strong franchise, just like Valve’s Portal. Here, the god is known as The Breath, with goals that any good god has: to grow, protect and evolve the human population.
The problem is that your powers are quite limited when it comes to the unleashed forces of nature, combined with a smart use of the laws of physics. You can destroy mountains and stop rivers, rebuild islands and overcome a tsunami, stop fires and transform barren rocks into a luxurious jungle. But don’t forget for one second that lava can wipe you out, just as the huge waves or fire can.
The control is very simple, just like the concept, actually a sort of terraforming against the clock. The story (nothing fancy) follows a couple of human tribes in search of their ancient roots, but also for a new, safer, home. Thus, they will have to go through 13 challenging levels and accomplishing all missions will unlock new stories about their origins and maps for the Challenge mode.
The Breath is represented as a golden snake and with a simple left click you gather the material into a giant ball, then deposit it in the desired area with a right click. The approach is practical, using the surroundings: get water, dirt and lava and use them wisely – earth creates bridges over water, blocks or deviates rivers and helps spread vegetation. Lava cools down into impenetrable rock barriers, maybe with a little watery help to speed the cooling, but you can’t grow trees on barren rock. Water is obviously used to put out fires and, extracted from different areas, will leave room for fertile soil to facilitate trees and animals settling in.
Besides these basic moves, you also get a series of powers limited in duration, the first coming up being named Jellify Water. It’s just like you’re Moses and are splitting the Red Sea, gaining a few seconds of protection against the waves or a way to go from one island to another to build a new village. Build is too much said, because it’s enough to call 5 villagers around the dedicated totem and the houses will come out of the ground. Other special stones give different powers, but for this a villager must fetch the knowledge. And it would be good if it weren’t for some quirks that might drive nuts the least patient players.
The pathfinding creates some issues because the villagers can’t be directly controlled, just followed with a very close zoom. Once you tell them where to go, they run to the destination, choosing the way as they see fit. In the beginning the road is pretty straight forward, but in the second half of the campaign, you can fail a level just because they couldn’t decide on a path. And unfortunately when they choose, it’s most often a useless detour because the AI suddenly decided that’s the shortest way. Or, some other time, when a villager was fetching the power to divert lava, he just passed by a near village to go to a farther one, but not fast enough to save the day. I get the difficulty idea, the need to feel the fight with unbeatable natural foes, but I also want to have fun, not to invent new words I can then throw at the AI.
The imprecise control also comes to add to the orientation issues. Regardless if you’re using a mouse or controller, it’s a little hard to see exactly where to drop the earth or lava to create the desired bridge or barrier. It’s a lot of trial and error, with repeated level restarts: you want to merge two islands and try to spread the soil to create a bridge, but you get some sort of mountain. You finally get used to it if you’re patient, but it’s most of the time a waste of precious time or downright failure; sometimes I won thanks to sheer luck, not due to the precision that helped me do the task. Even more, if some tragic events are visible (the tsunami has a timer), other are random, just like in real life, like a volcano which suddenly erupts and so on. These situations increase the adrenaline levels in the more advanced maps and force you to adjust or… just give up.