From Dust has lots to say about spirituality, although we’re not sure quite what. It’s cloaked in meandering mysticism about ancient ancestors, the waves of time and the groans of didgeridoos. But beneath its befuddled circle dance chic, this game’s inner spirit is a hybrid of Populous and Lemmings.
You play as the Breath of Life, a god-like entity charged with protecting a tribe from natural disasters such as tsunamis and wildfires. You do this in three ways. First by calling the tribe to locations where they can build villages, gain knowledge or enter the next world. Second by acting like a spiritual JCB that goes around collecting and depositing dirt, water and other stuff to reshape the world. And third by using time-limited powers such as turning water into jelly (guess wine’s old hat these days).
The goal is to use these abilities to get the tribe to create villages next to all the Easter Island-style totems on each map so they can travel to the next one. But while the goal is clear, the solutions to From Dust’s miniature worlds are wonderfully elastic. So much so that it is easy to lose yourself in manipulating the world and forget the mite-like people below as you gouge out new rivers, battle to redirect lava flows and generally mess around like a child building sandcastles.
Absorbing as this is, there are flaws. The tribe people are frustratingly myopic, often ignoring routes you create. The three viewpoints on offer feel inadequate. And the inclusion of challenge levels where you race the clock to complete tasks is at odds with the game’s meditative pace. A free play mode where you could experiment with From Dust’s captivating geological simulation would have played to the game’s strengths far better.
From Dust is out for Xbox 360 now, and due out on PC on 17 August and on PSN later this year.