Eric Chahi is the genius who single-handedly created 1991’s Out of this World (Also known as Another World if you’re some kinda European commie), one of the greatest games in history. But what’s he been up to lately?
From Dust is essentially an upgrade of Populous. It makes good use of the 3D modeling from which Populous obviously could have benefited. Some call From Dust a “god simulator” but it’s more of a puzzle game. Your manipulation of the environment and materials is only to help tiny villagers on the ground to get around obstacles to reach certain areas and to prevent disasters from occurring. Many god simulators like SimCity are intended to go on forever, but From Dust offers you these puzzles to complete and go on to the next level.
Controls are rather simple: Press left mouse button to grab material, press right mouse button to place material, press 1-4 to use a spell to stop the tides or solidify water or what-have-you. The solutions to the levels are always quite obvious; the game shows you where the exit is and the camera will frequently pan over the whole area while the narrator babbles in an alien language so you can see where the various materials are located. This isn’t a game-ruining problem, but I would have liked to be allowed to search for paths for myself.
Speaking of materials, here’s where the best part of From Dust comes in. You give and take piles of sand, water (All of the water is drinkable, fortunately), and lava to create paths for your villagers so they can get to the next totem (Which might give you a new spell for that level, one that might even be necessary to complete it) and eventually to the exit. It reminds me vaguely of lemmings (And you will indeed have to save your villagers from danger at times) but the little tiki-men and women are generally not suicidal morons. You tell them to go somewhere and they’ll do their best to find a way. There is one problem with the pathfinding, though, as the people will often take a straightforward route to their target even if it means walking through water or fire. You can throw some sand under them to save them, but for a game made in 2011, the pathfinding is sub-par. I would have suggested making them go through safe paths by default and only trying to wade through rivers or climb mountains if there’s no other choice.
The game’s physics engine is impressive. The word “realistic” gets bandied about too easily, but the way sand piles and water flows is nothing short of fantastic. And you control all of it. Is the level exit on a tiny island surrounded by water? Bring in some lava to build a rock pathway and watch the newly-formed rivulets swirl around your creation. If the currents get too strong, they may even tear through your work, so you should either get out quickly or build more permanent barriers against the elements. It’s the ability to mold this alien world that makes From Dust worth playing.
In the level “Wildfires” you get the option to move the already-settled villages that surround your totems and transport them to a safer location. OK, that’s a nice feature. But after I selected the place to move my village away from the fire trees, my cursor was permanently stuck in the move-the-village option. I couldn’t collect matter or use spells, forcing me to restart the level. On a second attempt, I learned to press x on the keyboard to cancel the action, a counter-intuitive solution that I only discovered when poring through the game’s menus. Why doesn’t a simple right-click or escape key cancel the action? I realize that it’s somewhat contradictory to complain about the screens full of hints and still wish it gave me that one hint, but I just desire solutions that are more intuitive. A game this short should have been better tested for usability.
From Dust is very short. There is a collection of optional challenges you can attempt after/instead of completing the main quest, but the game as a whole feels insubstantial. I wish it came with a level creator to extend the game’s lifetime, as is common with many puzzle games.
The cutscenes are beautiful and imaginative, which is exactly what I expect from the man who made Out of this World. But unfortunately they are not skippable, and that is not acceptable. In a video game, I should be able to skip every last little bit of non-interactive material, no matter how gorgeous it is and no matter how much effort was put into it. Just as I dislike escort missions that take control away from me, unskippable cutscenes are another evil that must quashed. However, to the credit of the cinematics in From Dust, they are creative-looking displays of the villagers exploring new places in a cool kind of noble-savage-meets-new-area way and are only about 15 seconds long. I’m saying you’re not going to be sleeping through two-hour Xenogears talking heads here. I might despise cutscenes that I’m forced to watch, but From Dust’s are less worse than anyone else’s. There is also the option to read “Memory of the Tribe” if you really care about the history of the nameless tribesmen. Chahi should be directing movies instead of games.
Another annoyance is the Ubisoft program you are required to go through to play the game. At first I thought that I wasn’t allowed to play the game without a steady internet connection. Now, I live in a crappy town in Iowa and sometimes the already slow internet will just turn off for a few hours because corporations don’t care when people in small towns complain about things. But hidden the menu was an option to play offline, a small mercy from our corporate overlords. Chahi deserves your money but Ubisoft’s proprietary software deserves your ridicule.
When I first played the game, it was permanently stuck on the title screen and I had to alt-tab out and close the game through the task manager. From Dust, running through Ubisoft’s online nonsense, which itself was running through Steam, would frequently bug out and force the program to halt. This game should have been a DRM-free .exe file, but at least this way no one’s going to pirate it. It’s also available on Chrome’s laughably unregulated game store, but I haven’t bought that version and am unqualified to report on it.
To conclude, From Dust is a big disappointment. Chahi is master of crafting these strange and beautiful alien worlds, but From Dust is not the game it could have been. It suffers from the hurdles required to get to the game itself, some irritating bugs, a mediocre interface, a lack of complexity, and unnecessary brevity. Creative visuals and an interesting physics engine are not enough to save this game. I don’t know how many of the game’s faults are on the head of Chahi and how many are due to the soulless corporation he was forced to work through, but I do know that Chahi can do better.