From Dust review

On occasion, the game comes fairly close to destroying the dazzling transparency of its own core mechanics, introducing more patently artificial ideas such as a series of trees that behave a little like the turrets in a tower defence game, spitting out sudden bursts of water, say, or allowing you to blast through chunks of solid rock. It’s a testament to the developer’s restraint that these additions are never allowed to transform your open-ended objectives into mere positioning puzzles. Over time, in fact, they actually come to complement From Dust’s brilliantly limited toolset, allowing for a surprising variety of different approaches to each challenge. Some maps ask for nothing more than foresight: tame the environment, ?set waypoints, and then let your followers do their ?work in the company of the game’s almost flawless path-finding. Others, however, require more direct attention as you hover like a restless parent, ?vacuuming dangers out of the way as your tribe ?inches steadily across the toxic landscape.

??That would probably be enough, yet the game ?is so much more than a clever series of geological brainteasers. It’s a pocket ecology to be investigated at leisure; a beautiful toy robust enough to allow you to shake it around a bit. God doesn’t play dice with the universe, perhaps, but he does like to play Mousetrap, and it’s not rare to get halfway through a mission only to find that you’ve left strategic planning – and the fate of your helpless people – far behind you in order to just mess around with From Dust’s uniquely fascinating variables. It helps, incidentally, that the maps consistently bring out the creator in players: a persistent sub-mission encourages you to thrive rather than merely survive, spawning life over the entirety of each level’s rocky surface, while later environments beckon you in to tinker by simply offering clever arrangements of fire and water, and inviting you to explore their endlessly cyclical relationship.

Best of all, it’s effortlessly dynamic. Sit back and let the world bloom, breathe or burn, as scattered islands slowly connect into archipelagos, and lava grasps fresh land from the sea before tsunamis sweep it away again. The best maps play to this strength ceaselessly, switching you from military tactician to cosmic landscaper and even artist, trimming volcanic calderas that threaten to overtake the map, or dabbing entire mountain ranges into existence in order to hold back floods. It’s not rare to start a mission with nothing more than a few handfuls of sand adrift in an ocean, and to end it looking out across an entire continent. Few games can offer this kind of scale and organic growth, few push you towards switching tactics with each rhythmic wash of the tides, and few are as convincing – or as gritty and robust – in their simulations.

The payoff is a god game that’s genuinely worthy of the genre’s name: a prolonged and intricate rumination on the punishing forces of nature that makes you feel the duty – and the joys – that great power brings with it. From Dust’s not magnificent because of its breezy intricacy and rugged grasp of geology. It’s magnificent because it’s designed with a playful deity in mind. It’s built for a god who knows that to succeed is human, ?but to err – and to be creatively led astray time after time – is truly divine.

Xbox 360 version tested. See our next issue, out August 2, for an extensive Post Script on From Dust's astonishing balancing act and the nature of playing god.