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13 years after his last game was released, Eric Chahi returns to game development in superb form...
I've said it before and I'll say it again: the best console games of this generation aren't found in your local retailer at £50 a pop – they're on XBLA and PSN for a tenner each. We can debate the reasons why until Eric Chahi returns in another 13 years to make his next game, but the simple fact of the matter is that there's less financial risk involved in making a digi-download title. Less financial risk = more innovation, originality and gameplaying whimsy. If you tell a publisher's executives that you want $50 million of their money to make a game about intergalactic space monkeys, they'll laugh you out of the room and, if you're lucky, advise you to come back when you've got a good concept for an arcade racing game with power-ups. Tell them that you want a tiny fraction of that amount for your wacky project, though, and they might just listen for more than a few seconds.
You might have already guessed, then, that From Dust is the latest XBLA title (coming to Steam and PSN in the coming weeks) to join the likes of Braid, Limbo, Super Meat Boy, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game, Castle Crashers, Costume Quest, Stacking, ilomilo – we could go on all day – as not only one of the best original games available for £10 or under on a digital download platform, but one of the best games available period. After a sabbatical from the game industry that's lasted over a decade, Eric Chahi (the visionary that brought us the likes of Another World and Heart of Darkness in the 90s) has returned from his trips to active volcanoes and general wanderings in the wilderness to bring these experiences and influences directly into his new game.
Unlike Another World and Heart of Darkness though, which attracted cult appeal and critical reverence for their manipulation of genre, From Dust revisits a classic genre that's somehow fallen by the wayside so far this century and, as a result, is more a contemporary revamp of old ideas than it is a plethora of new ones. Originally popularised by Peter Molyneux's Populous, the god game genre and its derivatives were all the rage back in the 90s before PC sales slumped, DRMs became a divisive issue, and developers even started to worry about transferring cursor-based interfaces to consoles. Perhaps that's the most surprising thing about From Dust actually: despite the fact that it uses what's effectively a strategy game UI (albeit a simplistic one), the lack of a mouse rarely holds the game back. On the contrary in fact, in some elements of the gameplay a thumbstick seems to lend itself well to the layout.
Featuring a bunch of wandering nomads who look a bit like some of the folks from Bruce Parry's superb documentaries on the BBC, From Dust is an exploration of ancient, tribal understandings of the geological world; the mythical belief systems that are built-up to explain why volcanoes, tsunamis, and sediment erosion happen. There really is an incredibly robust and complex game engine underpinning all of this, too. Beyond you or I having fun with it in a purpose-built video game, the engine has potential applications as an educational tool much like the Creature Creator does in Maxis and Will Wright's Spore. Prolonged exposure to From Dust will genuinely teach any 12 year-old the basic tenets of geology. It seems that even finer points of the science such as water tables and soil fertility have been factored into the whole system – put that in your pipe and smoke it, anti-video game brigade!
The game never gets so boring as to explain any of these technicalities to you, though. Instead, it's all passed down by a process of subconscious osmosis – mystical talk of 'Breath' powers and ancestral knowledge depose all of the grey, geography textbook matter, but the learning and understanding process is just as clear even if it's not quite as explicit. Every game needs an objective though, and From Dust's is simple: construct villages (built around 'Totems') and keep your villagers alive. Each stage presents a new geological challenge to wrestle with, whether it's a volcano on one side of the alley and a river that consistently bursts its banks on the other, or a series of tiny archipelagos that you have to link-up for your tribal people to spread across. Whether you're depositing huge heaps of sand to re-route the drainage basin of a river, desperately trying to suck up lava and dump it elsewhere as it creeps towards a village, or attempting to spread plant life as far across a territory as possible to unlock a 'Memory', From Dust actually remains relatively simple and that's perhaps its greatest achievement.
The control mechanisms and various 'Breath' powers are all pretty self-explanatory and have been kept to a streamlined minimum, thereby making some potentially complex gameplay pretty straightforward. There's a fascinating open-endedness to all of the various stages as well. Such is the power granted to you by the 'Breaths' that there are multiple solutions to most of the problems presented in each stage. Ubisoft Montpellier hasn't relied on prescribed design here, instead presenting some very difficult obstacles to overcome but leaving you with a wide range of options as to how you might solve them. It's a brave move and one that's incredibly difficult to nail without leaving gaping exploits in the game, but you'll never feel as if there's a straightforward path of least resistance in any given stage. Instead of giving you a paint-by-numbers canvas, it feels as if the game is instead making that canvas blank and giving you a range of utensils with which to draw up a solution.
From Dust's story mode comes in at around 5-7 hours, which is already plenty of content for a £10 XBLA game, but there's also a Challenge Mode with loads of bite-sized, 'scenario' style stages to play through and unlock once the main event is bested. Each challenge comes with its own limitations or handicaps, such as taking away all 'Breath' powers or only allowing you to manipulate earth, while the tasks are more specific too (e.g. keep all your villagers alive for a certain time, or reach a precarious or difficulty positioned 'Totem' etc.). Some are insanely difficult and will require many attempts but most are designed around stages that take under 5-10 minutes to run through, making the mode easy to dip in and out of – online rankings and leaderboards keep them addictive as well. All things considered, From Dust offers a similar number of gameplay hours to many full-price, triple-A games and it's more entertaining than most of them as well.
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