This is Eric Chahi’s new game, for those of you who like playing God. Chahi having previously made the classic action adventure Out of this world and Heart of Darkness, took a break of nearly a decade before coming back with a take on the classic God game with From Dust.
Chahi's latest tells the story of an amnesiac tribe seeking to rediscover its past. This plays out, for the most part, as your followers pick their way across a series of roomy maps, building villages around a series of ancient totems and gathering a sense of their history – and cool new powers for their deity – as they go.
For the player, it comes down to directing your AI-controlled tribe from one spot to the next and then nannying them in creative ways. It sounds like an endless grind of escort missions, but From Dust is actually quick-witted, entertaining stuff, and the central mechanic feels a little bit like debugging, as you blaze a trail, one obstacle at a time.
There's a good range of camera options: you can easily zoom in or out and even snap straight to a specific tribesman. The path-finding AI of your tribe is surprisingly good – cut off a route, and they will try and work out a new one organically – and that's pretty handy by itself, but what's even better is that the game always makes your followers' intentions enviably clear. Set a waypoint in the distance and the path your tribe will take to get there is emblazoned across the ground in the form of a spectral white ribbon. When the intended path reaches a geographical feature that your charges won't be able to cross without intervention, the ribbon turns red, highlighting the areas that need your attention. That's where you come in. At first, the trials this particular god has to face are fairly simple: you'll have to get your worshipers past a small body of shallow water, which can easily be achieved either by bringing in sand to create a bridge, or building up the walls to create a lake, and then draining all the water out. As your powers evolve, however, and the environment become increasingly complex and dynamic, challenges become much more interesting. Later levels offer up complex peninsulas for you to pick your way across, or places where your ultimate targets are buried under the sea or threatened by oozing lava. Equally, your own movements influence the entire simulation, and it's easy to be caught in strange little feedback loops as you scoop up mud to form a bridge only to discover that the mud you've used was actually holding back another body of water. While the environment grows more elaborate, the basic toolset remains fairly constant.
Don't worry, you'll unlock crazy new God skills like the ability to jellify water as the game progresses, but the simple power to grab and drop stuff remains surprisingly satisfying and thought-provoking over long periods of time. Almost all puzzles have multiple solutions – if you're fending off lava, you can force ocean waves over it to turn it to stone, move sand around to direct its flow, or even cover it with magical jelly water in a manner that would make some Ph.D in a tweed coat over at the Open University choke on the end of their Biro – and because it's a genuine simulation, these solutions don't feel forced or overly prescribed.
The simulation aspects might be the most fascinating part of this entire project, in fact, as Chahi's team creates a convincing environment built of fire, wind, earth and water, all constantly fighting for some kind of balance, and endlessly trapped within the same intriguing cycles.