Most of all, From Dust is a game about balance. Fire trees might be a continual source of disaster, but they can also keep waters at bay, so in the right situation they’re useful – even crucial. Lava can be a killer, but if cooled it will make walls to protect a village. And while water is a constant nuisance, you need it to fertilise your plains. All the time, the various elements, plants and creatures in the world are interacting and learning how these interactions can benefit you is the essence of the game.
Now, while you’ll encounter naysayers stating that From Dust is boring, mechanical or too aggravating for words, the truth is that it’s nearly wonderful. Despite running at a sub-HD resolution, the graphics are stunning – particularly when you remember that this isn’t a triple A title but a budget-priced download game. There’s a sense of awe when you encounter the game’s natural calamities, and the feeling as you mould earth, lava and water, watching flood spill or rage across the landscape, is that this is a truly epic strategy game. In fact, this is what we’d like Populous to look like if it were to be re-released this year.
Unfortunately, From Dust doesn’t always play quite as well. Sometimes it’s because the instructions aren’t quite clear enough, or because the objectives, especially those with time limits attached, are just on the wrong side of the challenging/infuriating line. Mostly, though, it’s because your tribesmen are so stupid. Let’s not get carried away here; these are complex landscapes, constantly shifting, and it must have been a struggle for the developers to get these chaps from A to B at all. All the same, the fact that you find yourself failing so much in later stages just because you can’t trust your guys and girls to take the fastest or most obvious route is a real irritant. You want them to use the bridge you’ve dragged up from the ground, but instead they’re blundering around on the shore. You give them an easy path from place to place, but they’d rather try to climb up a steep-sided mountain.
Annoying? Yes, but not a deal-breaker. While From Dust can be a mix of the sublime and the ridiculous, there’s enough of the former to make it worth playing. It’s reasonably lengthy, with a nice selection of short challenge missions to complete, and the biggest regret is that, at times, the action is a bit too frantic to let you have the chance to play with the landscape and let your god-like powers loose. It’s not perfect, and it’s not the heir to Populous that some of us will wish it might have been, but the experience as a whole is fascinating and – in today’s world of endless shooters and clones – almost unique