The one, true sandbox game.
When I was a kid, I hated the sandbox. I hated the beach. The little grains of dirt and rock would get stuck everywhere. To this day I avoid the sand like the plague. It gets in my shoes, in my hair, in my eyes. It sticks to my skin and palms. Even the fun of burying someone up to their chin does not diminish the ever-present nuisance. But despite my lifelong hatred for sand, I'm quite fond of From Dust.
Grand Theft Auto and Just Cause have been described as sandbox games, but only in the sense that they let you go anywhere and do pretty much anything. In reality, they're open-world games with third-person-shooter and driving mechanics overlaid on top. Calling them sandbox games just sounded more innovative, more conducive to GDC talks. But From Dust is quite literally the sandbox game that allows you to hold the elements in the palm of your hand, reforming the landscape at your will.
In Ubisoft Montpellier's game, you'll find yourself using the left trigger to pick up sand, water, lava, and vegetation. You use "The Breath" (of God, perhaps) to move these items and navigate the diminutive maps. The right trigger releases whatever The Breath is holding, with the rate of release proportionally determining the rate at which sand or water is released.
Across the campaign, you'll be presented with challenges that generally consist of assisting your villagers in their dominion over the land. Some maps have rivers blocking paths to key items, while others are bone-dry: problems you'll have to solve. At first, deserts of sand won't prove a problem for navigation, but each map requires a certain amount of vegetation to be spread before a gate will open access to the next level.
While it can be difficult to understand how to direct your villagers, it stands to reason that From Dust is hardly a real-time strategy game. More often than not, you'll set them off on a course that will get interrupted by some scripted natural disaster or another. Most of your time will be spent forming and clearing a path than managing who goes where.
Of course, From Dust is a lot deeper than your average sandbox with tsunamis, exploding plants, and erupting volcanoes throwing a wrench in most of your plans. Your villagers can balance this out by praying at specific landmarks around the map or controlling specific idols. These will offer protection from tsunamis and the ability to replant fire trees, water bushes, and exploding plants.
Volcanoes, water, and sand all have their own purpose in reshaping the world around your villagers, opening new paths, and protecting them with walls of cooled lava. Everything in the game can be manipulated so that your villagers can populate the entire level with vegetation and varied landscape.
From Dust might not inspire you to play through the campaign multiple times, and it probably won't blow you away like the games in this year's blockbuster holiday season. Regardless, From Dust's gameplay provides a compelling, serene, emotional connection with the game's world. Controlling fate like a god to move mountains and adjust the coarse of rivers is powerful. From Dust is the kind of game you could spend hours with, creating a world you can be happy with, that fosters growth in your little band of tribesmen, and is as visually stunning as it is functional.
From Dust is the God game for the rest of us, shallow enough for arm-chair deities, deep enough for messiahs who want to come to Earth and shape the world elbows deep. As one of the few games you can actually relax with and still enjoy to its fullest, From Dust should be in your library.