Use your godlike abilities to help a tribe survive.

The simulation aspects of From Dust, which let you use godlike powers to reshape the land, always looked intriguing, but the question remained as to whether or not they could also make for an interesting game. After getting my hands on the game, I can tell you that I’m certainly intrigued, and also apparently pretty lousy at being a protective deity.

The people in From Dust are primitive and have lost touch with their history and culture. It’s up to you to help restore what they’ve lost by helping them relearn skills, build new villages, and add lush greenery to their barren environment. Unfortunately, the blaring sounds of a nearby Dance Central 2 demo unit prevented me from being able to hear the musical introduction to the game, in which the the tribemembers perform a ritual to call forth The Breath, which is you. Your first mission is to found a village, which is simply a matter of calling tribemembers to a totem. It was easy enough to do on the stage I played, which was the game’s third map, but in later levels the way to the next totem might be impassable and require your attention before it can be navigated by your villagers.

Once the village was sorted, I had to direct a man to a nearby magical stone so that he could gain the musical knowledge of Repel Water. The village shaman had a vision that a tsunami was on the way, and without Repel Water, the village was doomed. All I had to do was scoop up some dirt to create a landbridge between the tiny island the village was on, and the bigger piece of land that hosted the magic stone. Picking up the dirt, no problem – just pull the left trigger to scoop, then move your cursor around to roll up a nice big ball of soil. Move it into position and then pull the right trigger to drop it. So far, so good. A timer was clocking the imminent arrival of the tsunami, but I felt like I had this in the bag. Just one more bit of water to cross, and my little guy was home free. Except From Dust is a simulation, which means the dirt and water behave believably, and no matter how much soil I moved into position, it wasn’t enough to stop the rushing river that was in the way. I didn’t realize my mistake until too late, and my poor little villagers were washed away in the flood.

Wait, wait, let me try that again. I know I can get it this time.

A second attempt, but the same results. I finally realized that I was attacking the river in the wrong spot; I needed to redirect its flow by adding land much further up its course. Once the water was diverted, the villager reached the stone, learned Repel Water, then ran back to his home to share his knowledge. The tsunami arrived, but washed around the island, sparing the residents, who celebrated.

All I could really do in the demo was move earth, but progressing through missions earns you more powers, such as the ability to manipulate lava or freeze water. From Dust is about restoring Man’s connection to nature, so it makes sense that your abilities will rely on manipulating natural elements.

From Dust is an odd game, quietly sucking you into its primitive world. It doles out goals that are simple enough on the surface, but once you begin trying to accomplish them, you realize how complex they really are. That river I redirected, for example, is now in between my village and the next totem they must reach, so I’ll have to figure out how to undo what I did without killing them all. Then again, according to the developers, sometimes you’ll have to decide which villagers to spare, and which to sacrifice as you make your way through the game’s 13 levels.

It’s tough to say if racing a timer will add some urgency to what could otherwise be a sleepy kind of title, or just cause a bunch of frustration, but my guess is it’s the former. I don’t really enjoy timed missions of any kind, but frantically trying to get my villager to safety as I watched the Countdown to Impending Doom definitely added some weight to my responsibilities as The Breath.

From Dust will be part of Microsoft’s Summer of Arcade.

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