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Monday, August 1, 2011

Review: From Dust (XBLA)

The Music will bring The Breath, and The Breath will save us.

We must trust in The Breath.
We don’t pretend to understand The Breath. If it was the Ancient’s will for us to understand it, they would have told us. All we know is what it can do and how it can help us and, for the moment, that is enough. The shamans have decreed we are to journey to find what remains of the Ancients and, for that, we will need The Breath. So it has been awoken and we are starting on our way through this vast world, for better or ill.

We have been warned that The Breath has its limitations and cannot protect us from everything, but the shamans believe it will be able to teach us to protect ourselves. Perhaps there will come a time when we will no longer need The Breath and it can once again rest. Until that time, we must trust that the shamans know best and that The Breath will lead us to the Ancients.

From Dust is no ordinary game. In some ways, it’s a God game but, as many critics have pointed out, it does not perform as well as other games that belong to that category such as Populous and Black and White. Over at Quarter to Three, Tom Chick went so far to call the game “Black and White Lite, Populous Minus, Fracture Without Guns, or The Part of Spore Where You Lost Interest” and, while a lot of the examples he used are good analogies for what From Dust is, I think some of it (especially the “Fracture Without Guns” part) is quite unfair.

The truth is it’s hard to categorise From Dust as anything but its own type of game. For all intents and purposes the design of the game screams “God game”: you play an entity known as The Breath who the in-game villagers seem to worship and you have the power to alter the landscape around you. Right from the opening cutscene, you are made out to be some sort of powerful spirit that the villagers summoned to aid them in their quest, so you immediately have an obligation to help them.

That being said, the execution is so much different from your typical “God game” it’s hard to group it together with titles like Populous. Where your typical God game focuses almost entirely on the interactions you have with your followers, From Dust instead focuses on the environment and how you can manipulate it to aid the villagers who summoned you. It’s this sort of gameplay that makes From Dust a truly unique experience.

Speaking of which, I suppose I should explain what the gameplay is: the mechanics are based around your ability to “breathe in” parts of the landscape, carry them elsewhere and “breathe them out” again. You do this to build bridges from one island to the next, to create dams and walls to block surges of water, and to channel water and lava flows away from your vulnerable villagers. You can use special trees to blow away rock, evaporate rivers or even extinguish fires. You build mountains and create valleys, all in the span of a few minutes, and create a true sense of personal awe and accomplishment when the world works just the way you want it to.

The game is gorgeous, doing a fantastic job of showcasing the amazing and terrible things that nature and the elements can throw at us. I remember reading an old article about how Eric Chahi, the lead developer of From Dust, spent a long time studying exactly how volcanoes act and the research shows through beautifully: every challenge, every natural disaster that you face throughout your time with the game, seems exactly like you’d imagine it would look in real life. The tsunamis are impressive, great walls of water that tower above the landscape, but the volcanoes are a true sight to behold. The first time the entire map shakes and you watch the tip of a mountain collapse in on itself invokes a mixture of awe and terror, all of which is magnified when the ash shoots into the air and the lava starts to flow and you scramble to divert it from engulfing your villagers. From Dust is rich with moments like that and I never found them becoming stale during my time with the game.



From Dust has an aesthetic that seems to borrow heavily from Shadow of the Colossus, only on a grander scale: instead of being something small and viewing this gigantic world from below, you are afforded a birds-eye view of a world that seems small and malleable and ready for you to manipulate. It’s as if you are the god that Wander speaks to in SotC, as opposed to the other way around. The villagers wear masks, much like some of the characters present in Shadow of the Colossus, and a strange tribal dialect is used to convey the small amount of dialogue present in the game. 

The similarities between From Dust and Colossus were very striking to me and perhaps that’s why From Dust resonated so well with me: I regard Shadow of the Colossus as the greatest game ever made, a perfect balance between action and adventure, story and gameplay, art and game, and I am not alone in this assessment. From Dust seems to conjure many of the same feelings and emotions that I felt during Shadow of the Colossus and, while it is definitely not a perfect game, it certainly feels like it has a certain undeniable poetry to it*.

(* - Sorry, Tom! It’s a good line!)

As I mentioned, From Dust is not a perfect game: the 360 controller (or any console controller) is definitely not suited for this sort of game (something which I’m sure will be rectified by keyboard-and-mouse controls with the PC release on August 17th); some features, such as vegetation growth and the appearance of animals, seem completely pointless except to make the world prettier and more lived-in; and the pathfinding of the villagers can be frustrating at times. 

That being said, I had very few problems manipulating the Breath cursor to go where I wanted it to and inhale and exhale what I wanted it to. The vegetation growth serves as an additional challenge for each map, asking you to cover a percentage of the map in soil to grow plants, letting you know your progress by alerting you when animals have migrated to the terrain. And the pathfinding was only frustrating in one or two places, and I found that largely to be a level design issue and not necessarily the pathfinding. Even then, the level design seems so finely tuned I can’t help but feel that the issues I had were merely purposefully challenging parts of the game.

Speaking of which, the game is largely very easy to progress through. A lot of it requires patience and an understanding that, though they are slow to act, nature is the strongest force in the world. But it is very rarely difficult and even more rarely frustrating. In fact, the entire game has a sense of tranquility about it that puts it on the same level as Flower and the rest of the titles from thatgamecompany, which makes it even better in my books. For those looking for an additional challenge, Chahi included an imaginatively-named “Challenge Mode” that gives you preset challenges to complete, some of which I found suitably cerebral while others require a mere trial-and-error approach. Still, the Challenge Mode is an entertaining diversion when you finish the main campaign.

Will The Music save us?
The one thing I really wish they included was a sandbox or editor where you could create your own maps, or just interact with environments and try different things. The mechanics are so well executed and the game is so gorgeous, it would be easy to spend hours merely fiddling with a world to create mountains and then destroy them again.

I highly recommend From Dust as a downloadable title. At 1200 Microsoft Points (or about $15), it might seem a bit pricey, but I think it’s definitely worth the investment. For a game that conjures emotions similar to that in Shadow of the Colossus and Flower, belongs amongst the company of games like Populous and Black and White, all while being executed as something unlike anything else, I think it’s a bargain.

Today the shamans told us that a great Water was coming, a wave so great it would entirely submerge the tiny island we currently live upon. There was much dismay amongst the villagers but the shamans assured us that everything would be fine: they recalled that the Ancients once had power to Repel Water using The Music and that, though the knowledge had been forgotten, The Breath would show us the way to retrieve it.

I saw The Breath move giant clouds of sand and dirt across this island chain, breathing it in as if it were air and exhaling it in the water, creating a small land-bridge to the next island. It was an astonishing sight: to think that The Music could be powerful enough to summon such a spirit gave us hope that perhaps it could also save us from this great Water. The shamans sent one of us to explore the new island, trusting that The Breath would lead us in the right direction. Sure enough, hours later our friend was seen returning, a great blue halo flying far above his head. When he returned, he seemed to be in a daze; she went directly to the village totem and pressed her hands against it, muttering things under her breath. The halo shifted to the totem and, immediately, the shamans announced our salvation had arrived.

We all joined in The Music that the shamans taught us, using our instruments to commune with the spirit world. As the great Water broke the horizon, the shamans assuaged our fears and assured us all would be fine. The Breath moved back and forth before us, piling dirt in what looked like a futile attempt to stop this great wall of water moving towards us, but we trusted in The Music.

The Water seemed on top of us before anything happened. I closed my eyes, afraid of the end, but it did not come. Instead, the Water pushed around us, circling us entirely on all sides. It went higher than we could see, seemingly higher than the Sky itself, but did not fall upon us. With every surge of The Music, the Water seemed to be pushed back.

Today I learned to trust in The Breath. Truly, it will lead us to the Ancients and our salvation.

- Nick J.



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Review: From Dust (XBLA)
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