This is it: Eric Chahi’s much-ballyhooed God game. Only, the latest from the Frenchman behind Out Of This World isn’t exactly a God game, it’s more a strategy sandbox title—and it’s as curious/confounding as that alliteration suggests. A mishmash of SimCity, Lemmings, Katamari Damacy, and Populous, From Dust casts you in the thankless role of protector of a tribe of masked nomads in a world that clearly just wants these people to die in a natural disaster.
Your main means of assuring that doesn’t happen is with your almighty Breath, which can scoop up sand, lava, or water, then dump it somewhere else to help build bridges to safety. The twist is that in every level, it’s unclear where the danger will come from, or what form it will take. A tsunami? A wildfire? Sudden volcanic eruption? There’s also no way of knowing when these things will come. It’s just beaten into you early on that you need to access a series of totems, which grant additional powers, then hightail it onto the exit.
Frustrating as that can be, what’s downright aggravating is that these tribesmen have no survival instinct. Granted, under the hood, the game has to accommodate whatever shoddy archipelago you haphazardly muster, but since you can’t set waypoints, just destinations, these guys devise their own scenic paths without urgency. If you absorb some water that might cross their paths, you might accidentally plop them into the drink. They can get landlocked on a mountain, unable to comprehend the simple act of walking on an incline. To paraphrase the familiar poem: The reason there’s only one pair of footprints in the sand is because God got fed up with his people’s pathfinding, and split.
There is a respite from feeling powerless in the bite-sized challenge levels, where the action takes on more of a puzzle-solving bent by handicapping your abilities. One asks you to lead your people to survival when you can only absorb water; another defies you to put out a raging fire using only dirt. Though in the abstract, those challenges hardly sound exciting, they’re far more rewarding than sinking 45 minutes into a level only to discover you must start over because your disciples make the same sound when they erect a new village as they do when that village is burning down. In all, that’s the problem with From Dust: There are a lot of intriguing ideas sloshing around, but few of them were fully thought-out.