Sorry this post is a few days late. I was busy enjoying Thanksgiving!
From Dust had a little under an hour of game time on it already when I booted it up this past week to take another look at it. I remembered just a little from the last time I’d ventured into its world: that I would be able to move around balls of water and earth, that the time pressure felt limiting, and that it was a candidate for most-hated-game-due-to-DRM way back when.
So here we go. Let’s hit that Play button once more, and let Steam boot up uPlay, so we can try to save these villagers once more. Will this game make me truly feel like a god? Will it frustrate me with control issues? Will I be forced to see the screen above over and over again because the same cutscene inexplicably forcibly plays after every single level? Yes, yes, and yes!
I’ll cut to the chase. From Dust is fun. It could be more fun, but I enjoyed playing it and wanted to keep playing level after level. The main story consists of a sequence of levels that introduce more and more “breath powers” and are broken up by a single identical cutscene forced upon the player each time you complete a level.
Most levels come down to lifting elements (earth, water, lava, trees) and then plopping them down somewhere else. While the player’s invisible omnipotent hand does this, little villagers scurry around trying to get to certain points on the map to build villages or secure powers or helplessly get swept away by a rogue few drops of water. To win, the little scurrymen have to hit up every village, at which point a mystery door opens. Enter the door to get a chance to view that same cutscene again!
Each level looks engaging and when new elements are introduced, the awe is real. When lava is introduced for the first time in the third or fourth level, I really enjoyed tinkering with moving it around. Picking up water and watching it cascade down the terrain when I drop it is satisfying. That’s a good thing, as that’s what you spend almost all your time doing.
If there are two main criticisms I can level at the game, it is that it is both too simple and too confusing at the same time. There’s not much that you can do. While picking up a large mound of earth feels powerful, there are only so many times before it starts to lose its novelty.
At the same time, new features aren’t explained all that well. Certain levels feel like they’re designed to ensure that the player can only learn how to succeed by failing first. For example, the second level starts with a timer for a tsunami that will wipe out all the villages and fail the level. What do I need to do to stop this? How am I supposed to even know what that icon with a timer means? There’s no way to pause and check out the situation, so I have to frantically scroll around and look for points of interest, only to have the tsunami wipe out my villages a few times before I understand the exact sequence of events I need to start doing as soon as the level loads.
There’s also a vegetation meter that I’m supposed to fill up to get memories, which are little stories that I can collect. Do I feel compelled to? Certainly not! I ignored that meter all game long. Once, when I filled up the meter accidentally on a suddenly lush water-filled desert, these huge crawly bugs appeared. They looked terrifying and like they’d eat my villagers.
There are challenges that get unlocked as well, which are like mini-levels that are more time-based. There’s a decent bit of content, but From Dust can’t quite hold my attention for that long. The tactile fun that I get from simply moving water around or dumping lava on dirt to make a wall is derailed by the actual thrust of the design: do it in a certain order and in a certain amount of time, or lose.
What I really wanted after spending time with From Dust is an objective-less version of this game, where I could shape the world, establish my villages, and just let my scurrymen and scurrywomen live and breed forever.