Monday, August 1

From Dust Review (X360) - The gods control the elements, but can't reign in the people

I'll state this for the record: I have never enjoyed playing a god game, let alone any strategy game on a console. I've never played an instalment of the Populous franchise, and I didn't enjoy my time with Black & White. That makes the purchase of From Dust somewhat uncharacteristic for me, but I took the plunge on account of the striking art direction and - in all honesty - the fact that it's part of the Summer of Arcade promotion. In some ways the gambit has paid off, but shelve any illusions that From Dust is the first strategy game to work properly with a control pad. 

The Good
Breathtaking - From Dust is easily one of the most visually impressive Xbox Live Arcade titles available: from both artistic and technical perspectives. With awe-inspiring environmental effects, and a refreshing colour palette, players can literally shape the earth that their subjects tread on. The impact of the visuals is stronger still in the later stages, where you must protect a nomadic tribe from the combined threat of floods, volcanic eruptions, bushfires and tsunamis.

 Play it, you'll have a ball!

Man Vs Wild - The special abilities players are granted throughout the campaign are not only amazing to behold, but also enjoyable to experiment with. Using the "jellify water" ability, you can recreate some Old Testament stories by parting the sea and even stop a tsunami dead in its tracks. "Infinite earth" grants the ability to make mountains from nothing to impede the flow of flood and lava. Players are sufficiently empowered with planet-shaping traits to combat Mother Nature's unrelenting attack. 

Brain bender - Some of the final levels of the campaign are genuinely perplexing. The solutions that I employed - some of which I'm ashamed to admit were not my own - produced some grand visuals and a sense of achievement not found in the average strategy game.

More than your money's worth - From Dust may be priced at 1200 Microsoft Points, but there is more than enough content to justify the cost. The package includes a lengthy (read: it took me about eight hours) campaign that spans thirteen levels of increasing difficulty and thirty challenge maps that task players with completing objectives with a limited set of abilities. Unlockable "memories," also afford some replay value for those who appreciate the game's chaotic brand of disaster management.

The Bad
Quiet, I'm trying to think - Even when you know the solution, things don't always go as planned in From Dust. This on its own is understandable, but it's nothing short of painful with tribesman screaming at you repeatedly for help. The sound design lacks the depth and impact of the visuals, and you'll have heard every sound the game has to offer after fifteen minutes of sustained play.

Was it all a dream? - I'll try not to spoil anything, but the conclusion to the From Dust's story is far from satisfying.

The Ugly
The Lord commands you! - As glorious as it is to witness, From Dust suffers from some near-unforgiveable AI pathfinding issues. I can't count the amount of times that I had constructed two or more valid paths to an objective, only to have my subjects find a longer, more dangerous path or simply fail to acknowledge that one was available. Towards the end, this problem is even more apparent and frustrating. In some cases, my computer-controlled tribe created setbacks that - while easily remedied - led to another half hour of play. All of this could have been remedied if you could have some finer control over the tribe itself, but as it stands you can only tell them where to go; not how to get there.

 If you can't stand the heat, get out of God's kitchen!

One trick god-pony - As varied as the environments are, the way that you interact with them is ostensibly the same. I found the simplistic play mechanics to be exhausting towards the end, particularly when the land and people didn't always react in a consistent matter. When the game worked, I genuinely felt like a god. When it didn't, my anger knew no bounds; I would often drop lava on uncooperative villagers and swear like a sailor. From Dust made me a vengeful god on account of its sometimes cheap and repetitive gameplay.

The Verdict
Many could be sold on From Dust based on visuals alone. The game looks magnificent when players enact god-like abilities to battle Mother Nature's fury. It's gratifying when it all works as intended and you manage to stop potential disasters at the touch of a button. More often than not however, AI pathfinding issues and other inconsistencies serve to cheapen the experience. I recommend From Dust to any fans of the god game genre, just be prepared for controller-throwing levels of agony and frustration.

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