Many games over the years have offered god-like experiences for mere mortals like us, from Populous to Black & White and even the evolution manipulating Spore. From Dust brings the god-game to the current generation, with a new mindset that seems to be more about playing with your environment like a child at the beach, than an all-knowing deity with a detailed GUI to assist them. We've got our own grubby little god hands on the first three levels of From Dust, and the game certainly holds a lot of promise.
Designed by Eric Chahi, who many should remember from classic games Another World and Heart of Darkness, the demo of From Dust focused on a small tribe of natives, who seem to be on the verge of extinction. They have lost touch with the ways of their powerful ancient ancestors, but still manage to create 'the Breath' - that's you. Your presence in the world is indicated by a glowing orange cursor, that can move around the landscape from your bird's eye view of the world. You can pan and rotate your view using the analogue sticks (we played the demo on 360), while holding RB will give you an even higher view, and LB will let you focus on any native you highlight. The objective of the tribe is to flourish as a civilisation by creating villages, uncovering ancient knowledge and continuing on through mask-like passageways.
In one regard, this makes it feel a little mission based, although the levels we played are no doubt from the very start of the game, and are most likely the basic tutorial. You complete each level by reaching the portal that's positioned on the map, so in a sense the game feels a bit like Lemmings. In the first level, the portal is obstructed by water, and in the second level can only be activated after a certain number of villages are built. As you build villages, vegetation grows around the settlement organically, spreading to any nearby soil and attracting animals, with its progress marked by a meter on-screen. However, the true beauty and fun of From Dust comes from interacting with the rest of the environment as the Breath.
The Breath can suck up a variety of materials - in the demo we played, soil and water, but we expect there will be more in the full game. You can literally 'scoop' up a sphere full of soil with the left trigger, then release it with the right trigger anywhere you want. As noted by the creators, it's very much like playing with sandcastles, you can pick up and pour materials wherever you want and they react in an incredibly realistic fashion. Soil doesn't just stack up, it sifts down and collapses over time. Water erodes the world around it, making damming up river flows difficult. It's all pretty wonderful to behold, with the physics, graphics and controls combining to make a very natural and very cool experience.
The natives' pathfinding is actually quite good, considering that you don't really assume direct control over them. There's no Command and Conquer style rapid-fire-clicking to make them go where you want, in fact the only way to influence their movement is to place the cursor over specific interactive landmarks and press A. It's necessary to do this when finding totem poles, which are the only places around which you can build villages, and knowledge stones, which grant the natives supernatural powers.
In the third level, a tsunami came roaring towards our village, its approach indicated by a timer. The objective in this level was to send a native to reach a knowledge stone, which contained the 'repel water' power, and bring that knowledge back to the village. Upon receiving this knowledge, the village was able to produce some kind of sound wave that created a bubble around itself, protecting it from the tsunami - although the same could not be said for the rest of the landscape, as many of the soil bridges we had built and other features were washed away by the power of the tidal forces. After surviving this disaster, and building another village, a volcano suddenly erupted, spilling lava in the direction of our villagers and ending the demo.
From Dust certainly has some wonderfully intuitive mechanics built into its god-sim framework, and the focus on taking a small tribe from the verge of extinction to rebuilding their civilisation is an interesting concept. We only saw a small amount of the game in this demo, but what we did experience has us excited for where From Dust can take us from here.