There are plenty of releases slapped with the moniker of “sandbox”, the notion being that it’s up to you to make your own fun. From the rampages in Grand Theft Auto to the destructive freedom seen in Red Faction: Armageddon, the very concept typically brings to mind vast cities chocked full with buildings, citizens and vehicles, all ready to play their small but key role in your self-made narrative.
But how many real-world sandboxes (or sandpits depending on the colour of your passport) can you remember teeming with the tiny cries of people as they run from a crazed lunatic driving down the motorway against on-coming traffic whilst wielding a rocket launcher?
To me a sandpit was somewhere that you could build fantastical structures; heaping sandy piles up to test the boundaries of construction before introducing the raging rapids of a sluiced bucket of water. Watching the tiny rivers and streams the flow would create as it razed, and then building once more on the macro flood plain. To this day I am never happier than when left on a beach with a bucket and spade.
The magic of From Dust is that it captures this elemental quality. Within the first half-hour I had forgotten the tribe I was supposed to be guarding and instead had my interest stolen by a rocky outcrop, from which a spring ran down its side and across a sandy shore to the sea. As I watched the sand began to shift. Encouraged by the water it spread and a delta began to form. The beauty came not just from the final formation but in the subtlety and understated nature of such an event. But for chance I could have missed the whole thing.
Such loose rules underpin the challenges found within this “Modern God game”. Matter can be controlled by your almighty self, though it is more about redistribution than simply summoning it into being. Ground may spring forth at the click of an omnipotent finger, but it will just as soon slide back into the sea if carelessly deposited.
Pick up a quantity of sand and you can either drizzle it out, as though a bag of sugar with a hole in the bottom, or dump the whole lot in one go and let the simulation take care of the resultant heap. To produce anything worthwhile however, the sandbanks must be built up and spread. There’s no chance of creating stairways or intricate bridges, instead they must work their way out into the ocean or be the foundations for greater earthworks should the tribe wish to scale new heights.
Water and lava can similarly be controlled, with the former spreading life through the sand, turning it into verdant pastures, whilst the latter cools quickly to stone. Such material is handy for more durable bridges and constructing walls that can withstand even Nature herself.
The whole purpose of your being is to serve and protect your tribe, leading them to new settlements and uncovering the ancient relics their people have scattered throughout the lands. With each new discovery so your powers grow, allowing larger quantities of matter to be scooped up, summoning the evaporation of any body of water, and even the ability to shield each village from the elements themselves. For as much as you can control the elements, so they run their course caring not of your deity status. More often than not a disaster of one sort of another, be it tsunami or volcanic eruption, is just minutes away.
Although these events focus the mind, the time given to you to react is often contary to the extremely unprecise nature of your responses. Being tasked with building up a flood defence or beating back a forest fire is all well and good but accuracy is not a known trait within From Dust, and solutions are very rough and ready.
Such matters are exhacerbated by some curious pathfinding by your head-strong tribesmen, who usually seem insistent on taking the scenic route to their destination or staring blankly at blockages that seem no more than a couple of feet in height.
The call to answer these challenges is further hampered when lava is involved. Compared to the reusable properties of sand, not only are most of the edifices unchangable but the burning rock has a tendency to set light to any greenery nearby. One moment you may be erecting a sea wall to stop your village from drowning and the next their neighbourhood is ablaze, and the only way to save them is to drown them.
Comic as it may be, the brutal reality is that some of the later levels do border on the frustrating as you’re tasked with the seemingly impossible in such conditions. Conversely, however, if you break the back of these particular levels then it’s there you’ll see the most in Ubisoft’s earthy puzzler. It’s at that point that whole regions will have changed before your eyes; volcanoes may have pushed themselves up from the sea bed; the land itself has been reshaped by the assault of the waves; and in the centre you have played your part sculpting a sanctuary for you people.
Indeed, you have to almost suffer these hardships to then be able to truly play. Once the men and women are safely tucked away in the villages and the weather has been tamed, then the world is free to be shaped. Completed levels will stay as left should you wish to return and resculpt, whilst the final levels show you what powers an unfetted god can truly wield.
Tying the package together is a visual style at one with nature. So undoubtedly inspired and pushed by the team’s understanding of geology and anthropology, tribal motifs and statues sit seamlessly in the natural world. The technology underpinning it all is also an art in of itself, as the sight of water eddying through tiny gaps and spilling into tributaries easily matches the care and attention lavished on the solid world about it. It’s such a shame that a restrictive camera system denies real opportunity to soak it all in.
Given the camera, the curious pathing and the infuriating difficulty spikes, it’s a wonder I still feel so strongly for From Dust. Sandboxes without direction can soon become a tiresome adventure, and whilst at times there may quite the opposite occuring here, for the most part you are free to shape and tackle the world in your own way. Be it constructing dykes to control the flow of lava, or dunking a large chunk of sand down in the middle of a stream just to see what would happen, it is incredibly easy to get distracted and head off down your own path.