On the face of it, From Dust is a game about a primitive tribe trying to survive and prosper in a world hostile to their every move. As a snake-like deity, it’s your job to assist them in their journey and protect them from whatever perils lie ahead. But in truth, this is not so much a game about people, but about nature and its awesome power. Here, man is determined and resilient, but essentially helpless without outside intervention.
This is a puzzle game at heart, with a loose narrative that links the action across a number of levels. In each area, you must guide your tribe to a number of totem poles and before reaching the exit. Doing so is no easy task, as the elements block their path in various guises. Tsunamis roll over the horizon and flood the land, rivers course down valleys and sweep everything away, and lava engulfs and sets fire to anything it touches.
As a deity, your main power is the ability to absorb and then deposit terrain and liquids across the map. If a river is flooding your tribe’s village, then you can simply pick up earth from somewhere else and build a levee to deflect it. The same goes for water, lava and a number of plants.
Once the tribe reaches a totem pole and settles a village around it, you’re provided with an additional ability. These allow you to temporarily solidify water, put out fires, build an infinite amount of land and a number of other useful actions. Whatever powers you have at your disposal, it takes considerable time and effort to fully tame nature. You’ll be constantly battling against it as it wrecks your plans and forces you to rethink your tactics.
The key to success is not to bluster your way through each map, but to advance slowly, observing how the environment changes before plotting how to work around it. Each level contains many of the same core elements, but differing conditions. On some, the abundance of lava is your main obstacle, but on others, the lack of it makes it equally tricky.
This careful balance of familiarity and variety keeps From Dust interesting and challenging throughout. The core mechanic is straightforward, yet has nuances that allow you to approach problems in a number of ways. The real star of the show is the game’s visuals though.
Each landscape is beautifully detailed and the physics engine that enables the real-time terrain building is a stunning technical achievement. Liquids flow smoothly around objects and react exactly how you would expect them to when the environment changes. For instance, if you cut off one of two courses of a lava flow, the new single channel will be twice as fast and much more likely to cause you problems.
If you’ve got a basic understanding of physics and geography, you can easily predict how your changes will affect the level and then if something’s not working, figure out how to fix it. Such knowledge isn’t necessary to enjoy From Dust, but it makes you appreciate just how outstanding its terrain modelling is.
You could race through each map, but you’re rewarded for spreading plants across the landscape up to a notional ‘100%’ level. Reaching this calm state, having begun with what is often a challenging starting position makes it worth returning to any levels where you haven’t attained this status. The final map also gives you a more open-ended sandbox, if you haven’t had enough already.
It’s difficult to pinpoint flaws in From Dust. There are occasionally frustrating moments, such as when a tribe member won’t continue on their path despite it seeming straightforward, but these don’t detract from the experience too seriously. Perhaps the only major issue is that in the first hour or so, it can be difficult to understand exactly what’s going on and what you’re meant to do next. After a while, everything becomes clear, but patience is required.
For those who persist past that early confusion, a charming game awaits. From Dust has a simple concept, executed exceptionally well. It’s almost worth the price of entry to see the physics alone, but there’s plenty more beyond that to make a purchase worthwhile.