Sitting somewhere between puzzle game and strategy game, the dreamlike From Dust (out now on XBLA, and in the second week of August for PC and PSN) is far trickier to describe than it is to play. Essentially, you’re a god - or at least a minor one known as ‘The Breath’, able to perform minor miracles of land-shaping in the name of helping your few tribal followers survive the cruel onslaught of nature.
Primarily, this entails sucking up chunks of land or globules of water, then redistributing the resultant floating orb of matter elsewhere on the level. Perhaps it’s to build a bridge between islands, perhaps it’s to extinguish a raging fire, or perhaps a dam to stop the ocean drowning your helpless worshippers. You don’t directly control these guys, but instead can order them, with a single click, to make their own way to a totem, where they’ll found a small village. As long as this village stands, you’ll have access to another power - for instance, temporarily turning water into a strange, jelly-like substance, the ability to instantly extinguish any fires or, eventually, the freedom to destroy or create matter.
To complete a level, you need to claim every totem then usher your followers to an exit portal. You’ll need to use your powers in very specific ways and even places to achieve this, which is why it leans closer to a puzzle game than a god game like ancient classic Populous. At times, this can be a little deflating. The game and the abilities it grants you seems to suggest anything goes terraforming, but progress in fact depends on finding square pegs for square holes. At times, it’s even frustrating - especially in the later levels, where specific powers have to be deployed at specific times and intervals.
All that said, the option to break away from the core challenges and indulge yourself is always there. There’s no pressure to grab all the totems and get to the exit, except that which you apply yourself in your haste to get to the next level. One secure village is all you need to stay in the game, and that means you can lose yourself in constructing streams and mountains, peninsulas and dams, islands and lakes as much as you like.
Admittedly, you’re restricted to incremental, small building rather than grand, dramatic reconstitution of the landscape, but it’s a smart and rewarding landscaping tool for those prepared to show it time and patience. As you bring life to the land, trees will slowly pepper it, and in turn strange, gelatinous creatures will begin to roam it. These serve no practical purpose, but they’re a clear and joyful sign that you’re doing something right, that your divine presence here is a benevolent one.
As for the other side of the coin, Old Testament-style vengeance upon the world, you’re just as free to drown everyone or swamp the place with hot magma, but really it’s just a fast way to force a level restart. From Dust simply isn’t the grand realisation of a creator fantasy, and as such stands in the tall show of recent indie construction games such as Minecraft and Terraria.
Nonetheless, in XBLA terms it’s a clear highlight. It’s small and toy-like in its way, rather than as sweeping and celestial as the trailers perhaps suggested, but it’s also bold, experimental, often beautiful and regularly ingenious. Its greatest accomplishment is the degree to which it mixes things up each level. While the appearance and key abilities are largely unchanging, the nature of the challenges you’re presented with fluctuate each time. A volcano can mean imminent doom in one map, but salvation from a fatally rising tide in the next. Water and fire particularly switch regularly from nemesis to guardian angel. From Dust isn’t much for humans, or indeed any kind of life - its star is nature, in all its fearsome, unpredictable, glorious randomness.
Smaller in scope than perhaps could have been hoped for, and occasionally struggles to reconcile its puzzle-based challenges with its terraforming-based mechanics, but From Dust is a strange, smart and ever-changing delight.