Friday, August 12, 2011

Review: From Dust (XBLA/PSN)

Ubisoft has been on a hot streak of downloadable titles dating back from Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, all the way up to current titles like Outland, Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes, and the HD reiteration of last generation's Beyond Good & Evil.  Now, they've set the XBLA record for highest one day sales with their current release, From Dust.

Once I heard it was a 'playing god' game, I immediately thought of the 2001 PC game, Black & White, but apparently its closer to Populous (1989), which I've never played.  I tried to spend a lot of time with Black & White, but for some reason, my brain does not work well with real-time strategy games.  I enjoyed it, but was not that successful with it (or any other RTS since).  From Dust seemed like a fresh start for me and my RTS phobia.  I mean, how complicated could an it's an Xbox Live Arcade title be?  

From Dust begins with you the player controlling The Breath, which is kind of a mini-smoke monster, from the television show, LOST.  While you do have the powers of destruction, you are mostly in the business of production.  That is, producing avenues of travel through various topographical features.  As The Breath, you can gather water, sand (earth), and lava and drop them anywhere that you desire.  The challenge of the game comes in the fact that you must make areas habitable and accessible for the tribe people through the constantly changing environments.

The mask-donning tribesmen (and women), need to get from one area (world) to the next through portals.  They accomplish this by settling villages, not just anywhere, but around huge meerkat-resembling totems.  This is where The Breath comes in.  Piling up sand creates landforms (which can be washed away through erosion or grow vegetation, which in turn brings animals), cooling lava creates rock (which the sand can be piled upon, but also eroded more slowly) and water can be siphoned out of areas to accomplish tasks.

The areas around the totems are not always accessible and are usually quite susceptible to natural disasters.  So, passageways need to be created, but at the same time important areas (villages, totems) need to be protected.  When 5 of the tribespeople safely reach a totem, (which is sometimes a lesson in head scratching at the route they try to take) a village is created, unlocking a special aptitude that can be used.  However, once it's created does not mean that it's perpetually safe.  Herein, lies the essence of the game: battling the forces of nature along with the strange decision of your lemming-like tribespeople.

When you first begin to pick up earth or water, into those magnificent spheres, I'll admit, you do feel somewhat powerful.  The introductory levels are quick and relatively simple, just to get you going.  Before you know it, giant sea swells and active volcanoes are introduced.  The disasters run on a timer, so there isn't much time to marvel at the setting.  You can see the seconds ticking down until the next disaster, but are pretty much helpless.  They're going to happen, you just need to be prepared for the fallout.  

In one instance, I had spent over 30 minutes on a level, finally coming to the realization that I was going about it all wrong.  There was a very slim chance that I was going to be able to complete the level, even if I, in a sense, started over doing what needed to be done in the first place.  I spent another 40 minutes doing what I thought best, but felt like I was playing catch-up the whole time and not making any progress in between disasters.  Spending that amount of time on a task and having it come up short was ultimately frustrating.  You really need to make quick decisions and prioritize what needs to get done before the next disaster.  Plus, the camera isn't the best with zooming too close at times, leaving some of the tribe burned because you tried to make a rock wall protecting a village or accidentally drowned as you mistakenly sprayed water on them.

When members of the tribe begin moving towards their newest destination, the game shows you the ways they will take, either a white pathway (good) or a red pathway (bad).  I'm not sure how educated these tribespeople are, but on more than a couple of occasions, I had built, what I thought of, as a perfectly good land mass to carry them to an island, but many forsake and went another way, basically drowning themselves in the water.  There's a way you can zoom in to the villagers and get an extremely sparse bio about them (one sentence), but there is no way to select which villagers you want to make the trek to the next totem.  That, coupled with the sometimes bizarre AI of the tribe, leads to annoyance more often than not.  Why can't they see that huge wave coming directly at them?  Why are they just standing in the path of that lava flow?  I kind of wished that the men and women actually did something, like had different roles or talents.  Otherwise is got repetitive just sucking the elements from one area and depositing them in another.

Ultimately, at the end of the game, it becomes the experience I was kind of hoping for, as you finally get the chance to play sandbox-style.  Sadly, by then I had experienced all I had wanted out of From Dust.  If you do end up liking the gameplay, there are challenges that can be unlocked which involve much more of a specific task, and prolong the game.

cutscenes are well done and look gorgeous but really didn't enthrall me with an entrancing story.

Hearing the tidal wave approaching followed by the yelling tribesmen as it hit, also got to me the first few times, but my ineptitude with the game lent that to happening quite a bit.  The background music is fitting with the theme, kind of tribal beatish vibe.

Replay Value
Between the story and all of the challenges, I'd say you get your money's worth (or MSP worth) in terms of length.  I have to wonder how many purchasers will actually see the story to completion and turn to many of the challenges.  There are rumors that there are plans for expansion like a map editor and multiplayer.  Even though my experience wasn't the best with From Dust, I'd be willing to give it another look if that actually does happen.


From Dust does not really give you enough power to be or feel god-like.  From someone who is terrible at and usually shies away from this type of game, I gave it my all.  I never felt connected with or appreciated by the tribe people who I was doing all this work for.  Maybe that really is how a Supreme Being feels, after all.

From Dust is the 2nd offering in Xbox Live's Summer of Arcade.  It is available for 1200 MSP ($15).  Coming soon for PC (August 17) and sometime in the fall for PSN.

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