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From Dust (Xbox 360) artwork

From Dust (Xbox 360) review

"From Dust isn't like most strategy games. It doesn't focus more than it needs to on micromanagement. You don't have to develop a village's culture or provide the people with food or entertainment. There are no numbers to monitor and there arenít many bothersome gauges to watch. Your main concern is keeping humanity alive while trying to establish a set number of villages, ranging from one to four, on each map."

Molten rock bubbles up from the planetís core, titanic tsunamis sweep across the land and wildfires rage through lush forests and grasslands. If From Dust teaches us anything, it's that the world is cruel and life isn't fair. We settle the land and nature threatens to take it back. However, humanity has a secret weapon against disaster: a godlike force known as The Breath that has the power and wisdom to protect humanity and guide it to a bright future free of untimely death.

From Dust isn't like most strategy games. It doesn't focus more than it needs to on micromanagement. You don't have to develop a village's culture or provide the people with food or entertainment. There are no numbers to monitor and there arenít many bothersome gauges to watch. Your main concern is keeping humanity alive while trying to establish a set number of villages, ranging from one to four, on each map. A village can only be established around a giant totem shaped like an animal. The first few totems the villagers build around are unremarkable, but later ones will grant you special powers like the ability extinguish fires or evaporate water. One of my favorites was ďjellify water,Ē which turned water into a gelatinous substance, preventing it from flowing.

You'll seldom find a totem in a convenient location. Some are submerged, others lay in the middle of a lava flow, and many of them sit on high plateaus. This is where you must use your wit and the power of the statues along with The Breath's most useful ability: the lifting and dropping of massive amounts of matter. Need to even out the land? Lift some soil and drop it on the area in question. Can't guide your villagers across a lake? Suck the water out of it and dump it into the ocean. If you need to build a rock wall, then lay down some fresh lava. As it cools, it'll become solid rock (and one neat thing about the lava is that the new rock's texture will seamlessly blend in with the rock already present). With clear pathways and level ground, humans can settle into new areas without much trouble.

By manipulating the land, you can ensure the humans' survival. However, it's not as easy as picking up soil and dumping it wherever you like. If you block a river with soil to make a bridge, the water will build up and flow over it or eventually erode the bridge into nothing. This usually happens before you can even make use of it. The answer to such puzzles isn't always obvious. Sometimes you'll have to reroute the river, causing it to flow in a different direction and thus allow the area that you need to cross sufficient time to dry. In other instances you need to find the source and bury it, then hope that the source doesn't burst through the soil you've laid. Even then, you have to hope you're not flooding an area that could otherwise prove useful in the future.

Apart from such common troubles, each mission features a unique problem you must address. One of the first missions is spent in an area that is plagued by tsunamis, which can wipe out a village completely. The only way to get around that particular hazard is to teach your village the ability to repel water. Each map has a different rock with a kite-like object attached to it. All you need to do is send a person to that rock and hope they make it back to the village in one piece. New villages will also gain any ability that previous villages possess. These abilities will not always solve the problem, though. How do you guide your people across an immense stretch of water to colonize a far off island, for instance? That's a problem that youíll spend most of a mission resolving. Thankfully, the gameís play mechanics wonít take you an eternity to master.

Even with a low learning curve, though, From Dust will most certainly challenge you. Sometimes you'll race against the clock, trying to learn a water- or fire-repelling ability before your first village is leveled. Other times nature will sneak up on you and wreck your village when you least expect it. One mission features a giant rock wall that blocks tsunamis, but still lets enough water through that you are prevented from establishing a second village. Your first village will be completely safe, so you won't even bother to check on it. As you add lava to the giant wall to stymie the residual water, you may not notice that the vegetation around your village and a flow of lava you didn't notice are approaching one another. You'll learn of their existence when you hear the symphony of screams emanating from your burning village.

You'll become a more frantic player as you advance. You'll learn to check villages often, to listen for screaming. Youíll learn why your villagers aren't able to cross certain areas and youíll scoop and dump like mad. Many areas will require you to manipulate more than a few piles of soil or lava in a short amount of time. You may want to invest in antacids if you're easily stressed out. Some levels only allow you a few minutes to save your villagers from disaster. One of the last levels nails you with floods caused by torrential rain and massive lava flow. If you cannot establish a second village before the second rainfall, then humanity is doomed.

From Dust can have some frustrating moments, but few of those stem from the difficulty. The AI is the true culprit. Sometimes you'll command humans to settle on a totem and they will not respond. You'll click on that totem repeatedly, and still thereís no movement. Then, out of nowhere, they'll all have an epiphany and leave the safety of the village to start toward the totem.......right as a tsunami comes and sweeps them all away. Humans also have a tendency to complain about uncrossable terrain. Never mind that you can see three other humans crossing the land just fine; there are usually a few not-so-brilliant NPCs unable to cross it for some unknown reason. This is why I sometimes feel like From Dust should be called Village of the Idiots. Most people you send to an area will stop if they bump into a river of lava, at least, but even then there's always an idiotic two or three that run headlong into the burning stream.

If there's anything truly disappointing about From Dust, though, it's the lack of a sandbox mode. Sure, the last level is sandbox-like, but the area you can work with is still limited. It would have been nice to have a wide open level where you can devise your own terrain and perhaps even design your own missions to share online.

From Dust is not a perfect title, but it is an excellent one. It excises the most irritating parts about strategy games and focuses on survival. The unique gameplay and challenging situations make for a very addictive game and a fresh experience, even if you have to struggle with infrequently faulty AI. From brilliantly designed levels to creative gameplay, From Dust delivers.

JoeTheDestroyer's avatar
Freelance review by Joseph Shaffer (August 10, 2011)

Rumor has it that Joe is not actually a man, but a machine that likes video games, horror movies, and long walks on the beach. His/Its first contribution to HonestGamers was a review of Breath of Fire III.

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