Being a God of Nature: From Dust Review

From Dust, an Ubisoft game designed by Eric Chahi (creator of the visually stunning adventure platform game Another World) and released on Xbox 360 as the second part of Summer of Arcade 2011, is in simplest terms a god game. Players control the Breath of a tribe which is trying to follow the path of the ancients from environment to environment. As the Breath players manipulate matter and nature to create safe paths for the tribesman as they found villages, spread foliage around the terrain, and finally reach the portal to the next level.

The game controls simply, movement of the Breath, which is essentially a cursor, is controlled with the joystick, and the left and right triggers suck up various types of matter into a floating ball and dump the matter back onto the terrain. The right joystick and a couple other buttons change camera angles and zoom, and the D-pad provides access to powers provided by certain villages. As the levels progress the Breath can pick up earth, water, lava and special trees. Earth can be removed or placed to shape terrain controlling the movement of tribesman, and water or lava flows. Water can be used to put out fires, or removed from the paths of tribesman. Lava is used to create solid rock that cannot be easily washed away by water but also cannot be easily removed by the breath. The special trees that can be moved by the breath interact with the terrain in various ways creating water, fire, or exploding depending on the type of tree. These mechanics work together in a physics based sandbox allowing the player to manipulate the terrain to their liking to combat the challenges placed before the tribes.

From Dust is one of those wonderful games where even when there is time pressure (in this games case usually from an impending tsunami or volcanic eruption) the game is still relaxing to play. The pacing is such that good planning and terrain placement is more effective than panicked shoveling and quick movement. The tribesman can only move so fast so relying on quick temporary solutions is risky and well-laid plans are the key to victory. At the same time From Dust is really not very difficult which aids in how relaxing the game is to play, but at the same time may hinder its satisfaction to gamers like me who like trickier challenges. I never had to restart an attempt at a level until the second to last level in the game, and rarely even came close to failing any other levels. While I’m not arguing that games should be easy to fail, I did feel like the game could have been more interesting if the levels were less forgiving of stupid mistakes. Luckily the 30 challenge levels unlocked while playing through the story fill in this gap by providing extra challenges with very specific solutions.

From Dust is pretty, and has simple peaceful music, and is overall pleasant to play, however the one thing that made me want to grab the developers and give them a good shake was the camera. Camera complaints are common in game reviews, but usually are an issue for 3rd person action or platformer games where a bad camera hinders character control. From Dust’s camera drove me crazy because for a game with graphics that look great when you zoom into the level of the tribesman or zoom out to a world view the camera is ridiculously limited. The player can rotate the camera freely around the Breath to view from any side, however there are only four angles above the ground the camera can take. The default is a fairly close angled view as shown in the screen shot above, and the second is a view from the same proximity to the ground but from straight above. There is also a zoomed out view that is at a similar angle to the first view, only three or four times further from the ground, and then a final view that forces the camera to follow a specific tribesman. The final tribesman view is just for viewing and the game cannot be played while viewing a tribesman. The zoomed out view is how I played most of the game, but not because I really wanted too. The issue I had was that the first two views did not provide the angle I really wanted. The default camera angle is too close the the ground making hills and trees too much of a visual obstruction, and while the top down view is good for precision work it limits the view of the map too much to be commonly useful. Playing most of the game in the zoomed out view worked great, but I felt that I was missing out on the nicely detailed graphics From Dust provides. I see no reason that this game couldn’t have had not only multiple levels of zoom but a full dynamic camera that would allow the player to choose and change their viewpoint on the fly.

Aside from my issues with the camera I would certainly recommend From Dust to gamers who enjoy a good god game. Being able to control a physics based natural world is something that I would like to experience more in video games, and From Dust’s unique powers such as turning water into gelatin or creating a heat wave to evaporate water are brilliant. The tribal approach to the story was interesting, but not truly gripping, leaving me to hope that From Dust gets a re-imagined sequel that brings the amazing nature bending powers into a deeper story with larger levels, and more complex goals. I’m really glad to see a modern entry into the god game genre and hope it starts a new trend because while From Dust isn’t quite there yet the genre has the potential to be amazing.

Bastion Review Part 2: Final Words

Upon finishing Bastion my worries that the narration would grow stale were unfounded. The game changes things up enough both in gameplay and it’s topic of narration that the gravely voice telling the story is always providing more insight into the world. My other worry after playing only a few hours was that the story wouldn’t live up to it’s potential. Now that I’ve finished I would say that it could have had a more complex deeper story and benefitted from it, but it didn’t need it. The story is simple in execution, easy to follow, but deep enough to stay interesting and make the player feel invested. In the end Bastion did not let me down in any way.

One game mechanic I had not yet encountered when I wrote my first impressions is something I’d like to highlight now. At a certain point in the game The Kid can build a Shrine in the bastion. Once built the Shrine allows players to invoke the powers of various gods if they choose. The powers of the gods are all designed to make the game harder, but for each god invoked the player receives bonus experience and shards (money) as they play. This mechanic is something that I wish many more games would use because it allows players to set a custom difficulty for the game, and be rewarded for it. It has become standard in video games for difficulty selections to be made at the beginning of the game and often higher difficulties provide no reward except for the satisfaction of the challenge. Through the Shrine Bastion provides difficulty that can be modified on the fly, it rewards players for choosing to make the game harder, and also changes the game in creative ways. I hope that game designers everywhere take this as inspiration for how to customize difficulty.

My final comments about Bastion will be spoiler ridden, so if you have yet to play through Bastion and don’t want to know about the ending, consider this a positive review and stop reading now. Within the last bit of the game Bastion provides the player with two binary choices, whether or not to save someone who betrayed The Kid, and whether to end the game by resetting time and preventing The Calamity that started it all or to continue living in the ruined world. The latter choice is interesting to anyone who gets invested in the story, and I’m assuming changes the visuals and narration of the ending. I have only finished the game once so far, and I chose to continue living in the ruined world, holding on to the friendships made by The Kid on his adventure and avoiding the possibility that the Calamity would just happen again. The former of the two choices, whether to let the betraying character live or die was extremely well done. I chose to save the man, and The Kid had to put down his weapon to carry him. As The Kid marched slowly forward holding the unconscious body enemies lined their walls and shot at The Kid. As the player I was forced to use my healing items one after another and just when I ran out, and the game had me convinced that making this choice was going to kill me, the enemies seemed to realize that The Kid had chosen not to fight anymore and that he was trying to leave peacefully with the unconscious man. The enemies stopped firing. One enemy failed to hold his fire and started shooting again but was quickly knocked out by another enemy behind him. It is rare for a game to give me as strong of an emotional reaction as this did, and in this moment Bastion guaranteed it’s spot in my personal top games of 2011 list.

I recommend Bastion to anyone who can enjoy an action RPG. The graphics, music, story, and narration come together to create an experience that stands above many. I can’t wait to see what Supergiant games comes up with next.