I recall sitting in a middle school English class, learning about conflict. We were tasked with thinking about the different stories we had read and how each was influenced by the interaction of protagonist and antagonist.
Of the seven types of conflict, in videogames we regularly see Man vs. Man, Man vs. Supernatural, Man vs. Machine and even Man vs. God. It is rare, though, that we see a game that focuses purely on Man vs. Nature, and as a result, writing about From Dust is different than about nearly every other game. Regardless of how much detail I give you about the different aspects of the game, nothing I say will do justice to the multisensory symphony that plays out from the moment you pick up the controller.
Designed by Eric Chahi and developed by Ubisoft Montpellier, From Dust begins with a bold and haunting piece of music that sets the tone for the entire experience. At the outset, your avatar does not exist. Your first task is to create the swirling entity known as The Breath. This endeavor is not trivial, as it establishes the bond between the defenseless humans and you, as their protector. At the outset, From Dust is gentle, giving you the tools to guide your villagers from totem to totem.
These landmarks indicate the locations where villages can be established. Once you lead your villagers to the totem using the A button, buildings sprout up organically, as if birthed by the ground. Should you need to cancel your call, hover over a totem and press B. You will need to create safe passage and protect your wards. This is most commonly done by gathering elements (soil, water, lava, etc.) with the Left Trigger and depositing them with the Right. You can rapidly deposit what you are carrying by holding the Right Trigger and then pressing the Left at the same time. X speeds your movement across the surface and the Right Bumper gives you an overhead view. The thumbsticks control movement and camera rotation. It’s all very intuitive.
Later on, building villages around certain totems will earn you active Breath powers that can aid you in your mission to reclaim the tumultuous islands. These abilities recharge on a timer and, in later stages, your success depends not only on acquiring them in the correct order, but unleashing them at the right time and in the proper combination. There are also passive abilities present in some territories. Most often, this is the Repel Water ability, which protects villages from tsunami and rising tides. A lone man or woman must pass these abilities from village to village. If the village is destroyed and rebuilt, the knowledge must be reacquired.
Where man treads, vegetation sprouts (provided soil and water are present). With enough plant life, Planters are attracted to spread vegetation, helping you attain 100% coverage. By completing each of the 13 territories, and by attaining 100% vegetation, you’ll unlock a total of 30 challenges to complete. These are very focused missions that take a small fraction of the time it takes to complete a story-based territory. You’ll also unlock parts of the “Memory,” a recording of the tribe’s stories and adventures.
The early territories only take a few minutes, but once you get about a third of the way in, expect to invest a half hour or more in each. As you progress, and other elements are introduced, the islands become treacherous. What was most astounding to me is that the world is truly alive. It reacts to your intrusion and you must respond, in turn. The game does a magnificent job of conveying the message that nature only becomes natural disaster when man is affected.
I often found that my first attempts at many territories were muddled and hurried. It took a few harsh lessons from the environment to learn that surveying the land and understanding the present dangers, as well as the future perils, are the keys to survival. As an example, I was nearly finished with a territory when a fire tree that I forgot to relocate started a blaze that destroyed my entire civilization. Upon returning to that territory for another attempt, I had a clearer understanding of the world, leading to a better strategy. Often it is better to start from scratch than load a saved game with a flawed world.
It is with that, that I reveal From Dust’s greatest secret. It has been billed as a “god simulator” in the vein of Populous, though that comparison is imperfect as there is no competing entity. Instead, From Dust, as with any worthwhile piece of art, is wholly its own. More importantly, though, it is the first truly successful real-time strategy on a console.
It wasn’t until I was halfway through the game’s story mode that I had the epiphany. I was managing finite resources, fortifying my encampments and protecting my units. My battles were against natural occurrences that I often had some warning of, but was never truly prepared for. From Dust works because it embraces its roots as a story of man vs. nature and it has the visuals and sound design to back it up.
I think that what will stick with me about my time with From Dust, long after the specifics fade, will be my encounter with the very first tsunami. I felt fear for the villagers I was tasked to protect. I knew they were safe due to my Repel Water ability, but I still felt concern, as a parent feels for a child taking his or her first steps. Nature is beautiful and it is indiscriminant and, as an antagonist, it is frustrating because it has no motive. It doesn’t seek your destruction; rather, it serves as a way to prove your mettle. From Dust is an absolutely stunning game and never more so than when it is effortlessly crushing your ambitions.
The villagers themselves look and sound like a fantastical version of an African tribe. Masks, giving the effect of the familiar and the foreign at the same time, obscure their faces. Their language, too, sounds authentic, when it really is a careful fabrication. From Dust succeeds because it tiptoes so close to our dreams of early man while allowing the mystical and unexplained to seep through.
Without the music and carefully crafted sounds, though, From Dust would not work. From the pan flutes to the drums to the conch shells sounding danger, everything you do weaves in and out of the soundscape. The music is both subtle and epic, reaching crescendo only when it serves a purpose. Most importantly, though, every sound in the game comes from the villagers you shepherd from territory to territory.
While From Dust is a masterpiece, it is not without its flaws. I often had challenges with villagers not taking clear paths to totems. Given that the world changes so suddenly, barriers can emerge with little warning. These were easiest to deal with in the form of water (though, I often felt that the villagers were timid even around shallow puddles). The more challenging situations emerged when an individual was on an incline that was a bit too steep to climb or descend. I had a hard time easing the path so that he/she could continue on. Additionally, I ran into a problem with villagers not properly grouping around totems. In certain circumstances, this was a major problem given the terrain. I was usually able to solve this by cancelling my call and immediately re-engaging, but with time of the essence, it’s an imperfect solution.
From Dust is like nothing else I have played. You owe it to yourself to try the demo. It isn’t for everyone, but for those that become enthralled in the world that Eric Chahi has created, it promises to stay with you long after you move on from it.
Review copy provided by publisher.