Following hot off the heels of Bastion as part of XBLA's Summer of Arcade we have From Dust but will it be a week to stay in with a cold one or nothing more than dust blowing in the wind?
A tribe in search of the 'Ancients' summon you, 'the breath' to lead them to what they seek. As the breath you'll have access to many powers and abilities as handed down from the Ancients. The object of the game is to manipulate the environment and to a degree the tribes people so that they can establish villages around sacred totem poles which unlock powers and the exit to the next level, then rinse and repeat. Other objectives include covering the entire map in plant life and finding sacred stones that hold stories of the Ancients within them.
Levels can vary hugely as the world is very much a natural world where you, as the breath, can grab water or soil or lava to help sculpt the land to complete your objectives. The game is very much an RTS but requires logical thought and strategy to plan out what you're going to do, this works very well and even though at times when you have to restart a level for the third or fourth time because the lava trapped your villagers you never feel frustrated or cheated by the game.
Your character of dust is represented by a snake like pointer that moves around the map, left trigger will grab soil, water and lava and the right trigger will dump it wherever you're hovering above. A nice little touch added to the game is when you've grabbed as much soil as you can the controller vibrates to indicate you're carrying the maximum you can carry.
Totems and the powers associated with them are where the game really starts to come into its own, in order for your villagers to build a village they must build it around a totem, if that totem has special powers then that power becomes yours to wield for a short time, everything from extra capacity to turning the water on the map to jelly to even being able to summon infinite amounts of earth, you're really given the freedom to play and work with what you're given.
It's not all plain sailing though, the game does offer some challenge with Tsunami's, floods and volcano's to name the environmental effects all along with tree's that are set on fire to try and destroy your forests and villages and plants that explode into a torrent of water to wash everything away, the water and fire effects can be counteracted through the use of knowledge stones which add immunity to each village but require a villager to travel to each village to pass on the power, which can be tense especially if a flow of lava is approaching and the villager has just arrived to pass on the power. All these aspects are there to keep you on your toes and constantly be weary of everything that is going on around you on your map.
How do controls that would most suitably be optimised for PC fair on the 360? Very well in fact, the use of the analogue sticks and analogue triggers really help to add an organic sense to the game, there no problems navigating around the map or picking up materials and dropping them down, never will you feel 'oh only if my cursor was faster.' The only problem came with the interaction of objects mainly the knowledge stones and the end portals which require you to press 'A' to activate them, getting the game to register the press in the right space can be a little hit or miss at times.
One problem with the game, which I found to be more frustrating than any challenge the game sets you as the player, comes in the form of the villagers' AI. As said previously you only have a limited control over the villagers and cannot dictate what path they should take to the destination you've specified, you might be thinking that's not a problem but the problem comes in that you can only specify totems, or sacred stones for villagers to go to, they chose how they get there. Sometimes they'll take the most dangerous route and either end up dying in some lava or endlessly stuck until you manipulate the landscape to allow them to proceed, even though there'll be a perfectly accessible path a few metres away.
From Dust bursts onto our screens on a dazzling array colour, from the deep blue's of the sea to the fiery red lava, the developers have gone out of their way to make this game look gorgeous. Zooming into the villagers you can see a huge amount of detail on their models, everything from the masks they wear to their grass coverings are all razor sharp and extremely surprising considering they look like nothing more than ants when zoomed out.
Later levels in the game, especially ones that allow you to begin adding material to the level have the slight deleterious effect of slowing the game down with the odd stutter every now and again, it doesn't affect game play and only occurs on a very few of the many levels the game boasts.
Music is used at a minimum to over exemplify the atmosphere that's generated by the sound stage, even the menus have nothing more than the chirping of the crickets in the background, adding to the very organic feel to the game. Being based around an African theme there are lots of drums and African sounding instruments used to represent actions that occur on the HUD, this helps blend all aspects of the game together for a more fulfilling auditory experience.
As mentioned before the AI of the villagers can be a little on the unpredictable side but one thing you can guarantee is that you'll hear them moan about not being able to get to where they need to go, this is probably the most distracting part of the game as you are constantly multi tasking trying to complete your objectives to have a villager not be able to get over a small hill when its fellow villagers had no problem with it.
The music that is used, mainly in the cut scenes between levels has an 'explorers' feel like something new has just been discovered which fits the game nicely, powered up villages too will ham away at the drums if water is coming and they need to activate their water repulsion power. This all adds to the tribal, organic feel the developers were no doubt going for and really helps create a world to get lost in.
In terms of length a first play through would clock in at around the seven to ten hour mark, there are a number of level to work through and challenges to unlock.
From Dust is one of those engrossing games where you turn it on and five hours later you wonder where the time went because you were so engrossed in it, this is broken slightly in the later levels when the difficulty requires you to retry a level multiple times.
Challenge modes are unlocked as you play through the main game and consist of a limited use of your breath power to try and complete a goal within a certain time, the time is then posted on an online leader board.
All in all From Dust is an interesting take on what is generally considered to be a PC genre and performs beautifully, with the promise of DLC adding more levels and powers, From Dust promises to be a game you keep coming back to.