The god game is one of the rarest genres in computer simulations, which is surprising, since who can resist having the power to literally shape a world? Acclaimed developer Peter Molyneux, now head of Lionhead Entertainment, helped create the god game genre with computer titles like Populous and Black & White. Now Eric Chahi, developer of Out of This World, hopes to continue the tradition with From Dust.
The game, a port of the Xbox Live Arcade version, has you indirectly guiding a primitive tribe through a series of 13 island locales. Each island begins with an idol or two, around which the tribe can build a village.
Yet while you can command tribe members to walk toward an idol, the path leading to it may be blocked by a river, lava, or other hazard. It's your job to ensure the villagers reach their destination by molding the earth to create land bridges or paths. The villagers can play music and dance, but they can't swim.
You'll manipulate the world around you using a technique the tribe calls "the breath." You essentially inhale balls of sand from the ground by holding down a key or button, carry it over to where you want to place it, and then tap another key to exhale the collected earth onto the target. The terrain will adapt based on physics, so if you place a glop of sand in the path of a raging stream, you can expect the sand to dissipate over time, displaced by the surging water.
The controls are awkward at first, as the game doesn't quite tell you some of the techniques of the trade. At first you'll be plopping down what looks like anthills, wondering why it's taking so long to stop water. This is because your first instinct is to just suck up sand like a vacuum and plop it down.
There's actually a degree of finesse involved; if you take your small ball of sand and drag it over the rest of the sandy area, it will get larger. You can also spread it across one area gradually or unleash the whole thing in one spot. The world is quite literally a sandbox, so it's fun to just simply play with the game’s sense of physics.
Unfortunately, From Dust doesn't give you free range to use your god-like powers on a whim. You can't cause rainstorms, tsunamis, or lightning strikes, unfortunately. You are not a vengeful god, but rather a protective one. So you need to race to save your village from natural disasters instead of causing them. It seems like a perfectly good waste of an impressive physics engine. It’s hard not to be enthralled by how water, lava and other natural forces shape the 3D world, but the game’s rigid design doesn’t allow for much freedom in how you play the game.
As you complete objectives in each of the game’s 13 stages, you can unlock 30 challenge maps by transforming arid areas of the land into fertile places that attract life. The challenge maps all feature time constraints, making the game more a puzzle-solving contest than an open-ended simulation. This is probably the most disappointing aspect of the game. There’s so much potential with the engine, that what’s offered only whets the appetite instead of satiating it.
There’s also the matter of the computer translation of the game. There are no added customization options, and the game inexplicably plays better with a controller than a keyboard and mouse. From Dust also could not initially be played without an Internet connection, but that requirement has since been removed with a patch.
From Dust’s wonderful physics engine and appealing art style are brought down by its ordinary gameplay and clumsy controls. It’s still worth a look at its modest $15 price, but its limitations will be frustrating for fans of Molyneux’s early works.