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[Double Review] From Dust

Every once in a while, we here at like to try things differently. Back when LA Noire released, we did a double review between Baba0Booey and Jay. We’ve decided to come back to that formula, this time for a PSN game, From Dust. It is a unique puzzle game with strategy and God Game overtones.

With two different opinions on a game, we hope to offer more insight, as well as bringing you an entertaining read! If you are unsure as to whether this game is worth the asking price, you should find this beneficial! Enjoy.

[tab:Pedro’s Take]

Since I’m sharing the responsibility of this one with Jay, I’ll try to make it short…er than usual. Since I bet he we’ll focus more on the technical side of the game, I’ll try to talk about how it plays and what it offers. From Dust is one of those games that is difficult to categorize, it involves solving some kind of puzzles, but it’s also very strategic and sometimes requires quick thinking and fast decision making. This is one of those rare “God simulators”, but you don’t actually play as God; you’re, instead, The Breath: an entity summoned by a tribe to help them discover the secrets of the ancients.

As far as story goes, that’s your goal, and every level you beat gives you some more insight, narrated by one of the tribesman. It’s more than enough and if you’re more interested in digging up facts. There are plenty of unlockable memories which will give you some deeper lore. One thing that bothered me is that every time you restart a level, you’re obligated to listen to the whole thing again with no option to skip, but I’m suspicious this could be related to loading. The game is divided in two modes:

Campaign: you progress through different maps and each will present you with a certain hazard(s) that you’ll have to work your way trough. In order to beat it, you have to form villages around totems (maximum of four) and then complete it by crossing a gate, which will take you to the next level. In general, the design is very interesting and may not be very obvious at first, so I suggest you study the geography a little bit before you start. Some of the later levels are a bit frustrating if you don’t plan accordingly, especially if you try for too long only to realize you’ve done everything wrong (there’s no time limit here).

Challenges: If From Dust was an average game, these would be the only levels you’d get to play. Shorter, simpler versions that present you with straightforward situations. To overcome them, there’s usually only one (or, at least, one optimal) way to do it. The good thing is there are a bunch of those, seriously, a lot! Every level is timed and your results can be shared, which is always nice. Design really shines in this mode and some maps are quite difficult to figure out, and some, even after that, require great skill to beat.

The Breath can absorb matter and then place it somewhere else. This is your basic ability. As you create more villages, you’ll unlock powers that can be activated for a certain amount of time and will greatly assist you. They are really cool to use and make you actually feel like a God; not just a vacuum machine. For those who played Black and White back in the day, this is quite a different experience, but it immediately reminded me of that game. Unfortunately, the game can get a little boring at times, especially on longer levels. Part of the problem is the camera view, which sometimes can be a bit annoying and difficult to use. Moving The Breath around is not as smooth as I’d like either.

Sound and graphics are really good; superior to most PSN games out there. Music and effects have an earthly feel to it and sand, water, rock, and lava won’t disappoint. Tsunamis look a little weird though… Another positive aspect is the length of it, this could easily take 15 – 20 hours if you are interested in getting everything. Physics is good, but not perfect. Gravity will take lava to some strange places, water will carry sand around, but doesn’t seem to take it away from nowhere, and The Breath possibly does not know how to count. Otherwise, it should be pouring out the same amount of matter it absorbed.

On the downside, AI is terrible, and you can’t control the damned tribesman. If you build a nice path for them, but they decide they’ll travel trough an erupting volcano, then that’s it, nothing you can do about it. This is particularly disappointing when there’s only a small window of opportunity and you’re counting on the terrible path finding capabilities of those little masked men. Another thing that I wish was present in the game would be a map editing tool, that could be really awesome. Create your own challenges and share it with your friends. All controls should work fine for this and not much would have to be done; it’s really sad. Perhaps this could come in form of DLC.

From Dust is a great game if you’re looking for some different puzzles. The content more than justifies the $15 price tag and should impress even the most exigent gamers. Its flaws aren’t big problems and will not get in the way of your fun. I had a good time with it and I’m certain that everyone else should.

[review pros=”Nice looking maps
Creative gameplay
Great content for a downloadable title
Makes you feel almighty” cons=”Camera issues
Dumb AI
No map creator” score=85]

[tab:Jay’s Take]

First of all, I agree with a lot of what Pedro said. From Dust is definitely unique, and one of the few puzzle games I could sit for a few hours and play. I enjoyed it quite a bit. Of course, knowing me, I also like to go into detail in my reviews, so bear with me.

Playing as the Breath, which is, to the villagers you’re trying to help, God, you have a responsibility to help these guys recount the past by unlocking bits of the story. Since there isn’t a direct story to be told through, say, cutscene narrative, the player must direct a villager to decipher an artifact located somewhere on the map that contains information of their forgotten history.

Of course, these aren’t a priority, but can definitely give you a sense of what’s going on. It’s also not as easy as you would think, either. The great thing about the game is the lack of a time limit, as completing a map/puzzle can sometimes take a couple hours (seriously). This may be due to bad planning on your part or what have you.

Going back to the length it takes for some puzzles, this is due to a few factors. Namely for those perfectionists. You can get through all of the main puzzles pretty easily, as all you need to complete a level is to activate all of the totems and go through the level gate, which activates after all of the totems are live.

For the aforementioned perfectionist, you also have the story-fleshing relics, as well as an obligation to provide a 100% level of vegetation on the land, which is a trophy as well. I’m no trophy hunter, but I found it pretty fun to try to get the 100% vegetation. Depending on the level of vegetation, you’ll also unlock more of the story, and animals will also start popping up. Keep in mind, only the sand will allow for vegetation, so redistributing sand to cover large portions of land does take time.

This is definitely the biggest part of the game. Matter manipulation. There are three basic matters you work with. You have the sand, of course, which, as Pedro mentioned, can be washed out by water, but can help build barriers against lava. Water not only washes out sand, but it can also cool lava into rock. And lava, which is probably the most destructive as it will cause wildfires if there is nearby sand with vegetation, and these can be devastating, so you have to be careful with that.

There really isn’t a way to lose a puzzle except one, and that’s if a volcano’s lava happens to touch vegetation, creating one of those fires, destroying all of your villages in the process. Unless you can quell the fire with water, which also risks flooding out a village (but villagers won’t die from flood at least). If less than 5 villagers happen to survive (which would be outside the camps), you’ll fail the puzzle, as you would need 5 to rebuild the totem.

This happened a couple times to me, but, luckily, some puzzles do offer up protective powers available through red or blue labeled artifacts, which I suggest trying to go after as soon as possible. These will protect villages from flood and fire, and both can be active on a village at the same time, which is pretty much needed in some maps.

Speaking of powers, you, the Breath, gain new ones yourself by the activation of different totems. This is where some strategy can come in outside of trying to avoid natural disasters like tsunamis and erupting volcanoes. You can scope out different totems in an effort to better decide which one would be more immediately advantageous and try to activate that one first. Not all are going to be on each map, however, and the most useful will always be different for a certain situation. Area overly flooded early on? Find the totem that can cause a drought. Not enough sand to grow vegetation? Activate the totem for infinite land. If you do happen to lose a village/totem, you will also lose the power granted by it, which is why I suggested getting a villager to transcribe those protective artifacts as soon as possible. You can sometimes move totems to better suited areas as well.

[spoiler intro=”Last Level Spoiler”]Pedro mentioned how there should be a map creator with challenges you can send to your friends. Technically, the last story puzzle does include one, but it’s only for that level. You can design your little island the way you want, while also forcing upon your villagers fires and tsunamis, using powers unavailable to you beforehand (and of which don’t have time limits).

Unfortunately, on this last level, you are unsure of what each power would do, as it is more or less in the villager’s language. You might accidentally cause a tsunami and flood out your island like I did. I suggest building a high island, though, and make sure you put that last gate near a village. Just an FYI.[/spoiler]

Some maps have dead forests, but you can get rid of them and replace them with new vegetation by sucking up the sand. Littered throughout some maps are also burning trees, which occasionally burst and cause fires, and these other plants that work like water sponges (and burst when they get too full or heat/fire comes within range). Exploding plants are also in some maps to help break through rock walls and barriers to reach otherwise inaccessible areas (and are also triggered by fire).

Eventually, you gain the ability to remove and replace these plants elsewhere. Tired of that fire tree constantly setting your forests ablaze? Move it up to the top of a mountain peak. On one map, I had about 20 of them on the same peak. Just make sure the sand that surrounds the base upon replacement isn’t attached to any other sand containing vegetation.

One thing I noticed about the story puzzles was the mix of difficulties between levels. A couple puzzles would be easy, and then you’ll have a more challenging one that takes a while, followed by another easy puzzle, etc. It doesn’t do a good job of progressively increasing the challenge, as it seemed pretty mixed like that throughout.

I think I hit on the main points of gameplay well enough. Now for the technical aspects. First of all, the AI. As Pedro mentioned, this can sometimes be pretty bad. He mentioned building a path you want them to follow, but they decide to go through the volcano instead. I believe I know exactly what level he is talking about, because I had that same problem. Not only that, sometimes after being flooded out, some villagers that were assigned to transcribe an artifact or bring back a protective power, would just stand there. Luckily, more villagers will come if they couldn’t complete their task in time (initially, you have a limited number of villagers, but as long as you can protect villages, you’ll have an endless number to inhabit and create new ones).

The AI has the brains to try to go back and reclaim a totem at least. You can’t initially send villagers to activate one if there is either lava or water too close to it. After you fix that situation and they activate it, they will continue to do so if either a fire or flood destroys it, even if the water or lava might be inside that radius later. This was nice, as I had one village next to a volcano burn to the ground about a hundred times while I tried to create a splash barrier for the periodical tsunamis (and then taking my time to drain out the water that flooded an interior valley).

Pedro mentioned the camera, which, after a while, I think can be easily gotten used to. I did notice on going through the level gates, as the camera angle would change to the villagers entering it, the camera will occasionally clip through the ground for the fixed angle they use on the gate, but other than that? I didn’t have any issues beyond the initial use of it.

Graphically, the game looks great. Quite a bit of detail and sometimes very colorful. Watching the evolution of a map either through erosion of sand by water, or the buildup of new land by lava, may be pretty subtle and almost unnoticed over time. But if you happen to sit back and reflect on what a level used to look like, it’s amazing how much it had evolved (mainly the stuff you had nothing to do with).

Sounds are fitting as well, with more primitive music as the score (like djembe and didgeridoo-sounding instruments, etc). These change with contextual events like tsunamis, which will change to a more dramatic, intense score. Sound effects themselves might not be top notch, but things like fires and floods will cause villagers to scream, and erupting volcanoes will create a deep rumble, etc.

I didn’t have any problems with the controls. I will admit that, occasionally, it can get annoying trying to collect, say, a small bit of water surrounded by a lot of sand, but nothing too bad. Pedro said something about the Breath not putting out the same amount of matter it absorbed. That’s not the case at all, really. It just releases matter faster than it picks up. Sometimes the sand barely covers the surface and is more like a dusting, so it might seem like, when you lay it, it isn’t as much as what you thought you picked up.

To conclude, I actually found this game to be a lot of fun. Is it worth the $15 price tag? That, as always, is subjective, but I think it makes for a good investment. Especially if you want a challenging game you can potentially spend a bit of time on (or replay and approach puzzles differently, or better your time on the challenges, etc). With a good mix of strategy and God-game aspects to the puzzle genre, this is also something different.

It does have some issues, however. Sometimes bad AI being a big one, but nothing game breaking. You might also hate the camera at first, but eventually get used to it. None of these problems really detract from the game, though, and you still wound up with a great game. Heck, if you are unsure about getting it, you can download the demo, which is the whole game. If you decide to purchase, you only need to download the key to unlock it is all.

[review pros=”Challenging and fun
New, creative take on the puzzle genre
Crisp graphics
Inventive level design and mechanics
Good replay value” cons=”Villager AI seldom doesn’t work right
Can’t skip initial level narrative after loading screen
Camera needs time to get used to” score=92]

This review is based on a retail copy of the PS3 version of From Dust provided by Ubisoft.