Version tested: Xbox 360
From Dust is a different kind of god game. In most examples of this rarefied strata of strategy game - including its closest relative and direct inspiration, Peter Molyneux's classic Populous - the player-god is a blend of accountant, general and town planner who manages resources, shapes cities, counts off prayers and wars with rivals. A manager, in other words; a director of human affairs.
From Dust's god - known as the Breath - has the same aims: the survival, settlement and progress of its people. But it's both more hands-on and more remote, giving only the most basic instructions to its nomadic tribe of followers while directly manipulating nature instead: shaping rivers, moulding earth and rock like putty, creating order from chaos, coaxing life from barren dust.
The game's designer, elusive Frenchman Eric Chahi - who hasn't released a game in 13 years - is a keen amateur geologist, and it shows. The terrified and displaced tribesmen crawl out of a hole in the ground to find themselves in a fantastic setting resembling the Earth many millennia before human existence. They speak of following in the footsteps of elders, yet the planet is tortured by volcanoes and tsunamis, apparently suffering the birthing pains our own did as it coughed up landmass and life.
It's elemental stuff, nothing less than a video game creation myth. (It's an odd coincidence that From Dust appears shortly after Terence Malick's rapturous invocation of the beginning of all things in his film The Tree of Life - and you could argue that Chahi's vision is the more coherent.) If god games should inspire awe, then From Dust towers over the petty, hand-to-mouth, human agenda of its predecessors.
But it's also a simple game, if generous in scope for a download title (it's released on Xbox Live Arcade this week, PC on 17th August and PlayStation Network some time in the future.) You must use the Breath to protect the tribesmen and help them navigate a series of dangerous but contained environments, settling villages on their way to a portal and the next stage of their journey.
The Breath, represented by a circling tadpole of a cursor, can suck up and deposit huge quantities water, earth and lava. Earth bridges gaps, diverts rivers and spreads vegetation from colonised villages. Lava cools into walls of impregnable but barren rock.
The interaction of these three elements is at the core of From Dust, and it's realised in a breathtaking living simulation conjured by the coders at Ubisoft's Montpellier studio. Like Q Games' excellent PixelJunk Shooter did in two dimensions before it, From Dust taps into the hypnotic spectacle of real-time fluid dynamics for some truly awesome sights: the first time you witness one of its titanic tsunamis is guaranteed to set your hair on end.
But the game doesn't just subject you to waves and eruptions. It allows you to study and toy with these intuitively understood yet unpredictable elements, using them to solve a series of situational riddles. Displacement, erosion, sedimentary deposit, landslide, wildfire, tide and flood - you watch them all at work and, as the Breath, try to bend them to your will.
Despite the levels' small size, From Dust is more of a sandbox than almost any 'open world' game, and it practically defines the concept of emergent play (as referenced by the title of one of its best chapters.) It's not so much about having multiple solutions to a problem as an infinite variety of ways a single solution might play out. But you do have a selection of additional tools at your disposal.
Each level is dotted with totems and prayer stones. Direct five tribesmen to a totem and they will establish a village; direct a village's shaman to a stone and he will bring back knowledge, enabling the village to resist flood, perhaps, or fire. A village needs to be settled and maintained at each totem for the portal to the next chapter to open. Once settled, most villages grant the Breath a power.
The time-limited powers escalate from a boost to the amount of matter you can move, through the ability to quench fire and evaporate water to the truly godly gifts of the production and elimination of matter. You get the standout power early on: Jellify Water immobilises the fluid and lets you shape it, allowing you to stage your own Moses moment and part the waves.
Other forces of nature come into play. Water springs can be dug out or buried; 'trees' that spread fire or release water can be replanted to combat each other; animals and vegetation establish simple ecosystems. I shan't go into too much detail about how these various devices are employed by the designers, but suffice to say that ideas are seldom repeated across the thirteen stages, and your enemy in one stage is quite often your friend in the next. The importance of balance in nature is a well-rehearsed hippy mantra, but it's seldom been more elegantly expressed in games.
Completed chapters remain open as you left them, and you can revisit them simply to muck around or to achieve the secondary goal of spreading vegetation across as much of the stage as possible. This (like finding certain stones) unlocks hints and the bite-sized Challenge maps.
In contrast to the long-form strategic thrust of most god games, From Dust's goals are immediate and tangible: cross the river, save the village, tame the volcano. The requirements made of you are light - just activating all the totems and getting five men to the portal will complete the map. (Since the Breath is no middle-manager, it doesn't need milestones.)
It's a brilliant move, discouraging methodical play and encouraging experimentation and improvisation. The game starts languidly, but although there are never any time limits as such, the restless forces of nature pile on the pressure in later levels. This gives rise to some awe-inspiring challenges, but occasionally reduces you to frantic to-ing and fro-ing as you try to displace as much matter as possible before the next disaster strikes - more desperate fire-fighter than mighty creator.
This pressured, repetitive style of play doesn't flatter From Dust; it may be far more pacey and tactile than any other god game, but it's still hardly arcade action. It's also the reason many of the time-trial Challenge maps don't really work, although there are a few delightful little puzzles concealed here. Time and population targets for the campaign maps might have been a better way to satisfy Microsoft's contractual (and here ill-fitting) requirement for Xbox Live leaderboards.
There's also a cruel map at the end of the game - a great idea, viciously implemented - that puts a dent of irritation in an otherwise well-sculpted campaign. It can be rushed through in half a dozen hours, will sustain you for twice that, but the game's modest length and size don't reflect its elemental, existential scale. From Dust is a crescendo - of ideas, but mostly of the glorious and fearful drama of nature - that will leave you feeling both humbled and thrilled.
But it still feels like a beginning, and not just because it tells the tale of one. It's a big idea in a small package, and it's begging to be expanded, as Ubisoft has hinted it might be. Pray that it is.
9 / 10
From Dust releases 27th July on XBLA and will be available to download for PC on 17th August. A PSN release will follow.