The next game on my list, From Dust, is not an indie game. It is published by Ubisoft, one of the largest game publishers. But it is made by Eric Chahi, the same man who made the striking Another World, and marks his first game since 1998. And its premise sounds like something that only an indie studio would attempt: a game centered around deformable terrain, with realistic water and lava physics, that sees the player morphing the landscape in order to guide tiny tribal villagers to safety. Re-routing rivers, stemming lava flows by building mounds of earth, and more, all made possible by the terrain-deforming tech.

Unfortunately, Ubisoft’s involvement caused a lot of outcry when From Dust was released for PC, several weeks after its Xbox debut. After Ubisfot stated that the game would not feature their infamous form of DRM (that’s “digital rights management”, a new term that really just means copy protection) that requires players to be online at all times and will kick them out of the game if their connection is interrupted, From Dust launched on Steam and did indeed feature said DRM. Disgruntled customers complained loudly, and Steam even issued refunds, which is almost unheard of. Eventually the DRM was removed with a patch, and I was able to purchase the game and try it out.

At first I thought the patch hadn’t worked as I was greeted with a login screen, but then noticed the small “play offline” button, which I happily clicked. I had no trouble playing all the way through without bothering with Ubisoft’s servers, so any players concerned about the DRM can rest assured that it has been removed.

And it’s a good thing too, because the game really is quite something. It’s simply stunning to behold. Water runs down mountains, carving paths and depositing soil downstream to form deltas. Lava belches forth from volcanic craters and solidifies into nearly indestructible rock formations. Build a dam of earth and the river will respond, changing its course and carving a new riverbed from what was mere earth moments before. Grab some lava and spread it around, and it will cool and form a rock barrier or bridge, and set fire to any nearby vegetation. By absorbing and depositing earth, water and lava, the player is free to mold the landscape at whim, and watching everything respond and evolve is truly remarkable.

From Dust was marketed as a “spiritual heir” to the classic game Populous, and while I’ve never actually played Populous (perhaps it will be the subject of a History Lesson one day?), I gather that From Dust is actually rather different. Populous casts the player as a deity watching over a fledgling civilization and helping it develop and grow, but From Dust offers more puzzle-like challenges. Each map necessitates building several villages, which means that paths must be cleared or built so tribesmen can travel to a new village site. This is accomplished by building dams and bridges and otherwise manipulating the terrain, and From Dust concocts a great variety of challenges from this simple premise. One map might require re-routing rivers in order to create paths to the village sites, while another might feature a slowly rising water level that keeps the player looking for higher ground. Many maps change drastically during play, with huge volcanoes growing from nearly nothing and reshaping the whole area, or periodic tsunamis crashing over the land and flooding valleys, all while the player frantically tries to keep the villages out of harm’s way.

At first, it took me a while to grow accustomed to the ways in which I could affect the environment, and the rather odd-feeling mouse controls didn’t help. The game was clearly designed for a gamepad, and while I still feel that the mouse offers more precise, faster control, it did take some adjustment before I felt fully comfortable. Once that happened, though, I had a blast. Reshaping the earth itself is an experience unlike any other I’ve had in gaming. The tiny villagers prospered and explored as I kept a watchful eye, ready to steer water and lava clear of their settlements, and to create paths for them to seek the knowledge to defend themselves from the elements. Acting as guardian to the tribe never got boring, as the game’s story mode introduces new ideas and features at a steady pace. There are also several optional challenges that aim to convince determined players to return and improve their performance on each map, as well as smaller, more focused challenge maps that move at a much faster pace. But throughout it all, simply playing around with the environment was always the highlight.

It’s a shame, then, that the only way to play in a sandbox mode is to finish the story, unlocking the last map which finally puts everything at the player’s fingertips. I could build islands, create volcanoes, sculpt waterfalls, dump lava everywhere, and even trigger tsunamis. Many players would probably prefer this mode to any of the others, so it’s a shame it’s not easier to access (especially since the preceding map is extremely difficult, and actually drove me to check for a solution online). But I actually enjoyed the story mode, and felt it gave a good introduction to how nature and the elements function in From Dust. I had a much better idea of what I wanted to create on that final map after working through the game’s story.

But that’s not to say that the story mode doesn’t have its problems. The villagers’ pathfinding is sometimes aggravating, with them stopping and calling for help despite having what looks to be a perfectly clear path to their destination. To be fair, though, programming pathfinding AI in a game with fully deformable terrain (not to mention obstacles like rivers and lava flows that can change their course in real time) must have been a nightmare, and in most cases I was actually very impressed with how well it worked. More frustrating was the overly fiddly process of building new villages. A village site requires a certain amount of space around it before the village can be built, but even the tiniest drop of water in that space will stop the builders cold. One of my favorite maps involves using the lava from a volcano to build a chain of islands around it, founding the villages in the perimeter while the volcano slowly grows in the center. But actually settling these villages was a huge pain, because I had to not only build an island for the village out of lava, but had to make sure it met the minimum size requirements and that absolutely none of the seawater had splashed on top and caught in a crevice somewhere.

In such cases it is especially frustrating that there’s no way to save partway through a map. Unless there was… the game’s menu shows a “save” option, but trying to select it produced warnings about overwriting progress that made me chicken out, for fear of having to restart the map. As a result, on a few occasions I’d get quite far, painstakingly sculpting things just so, and then mess up at the end, lose one of my villages, and end up having to play the whole map again from the beginning. This also meant that I’d need a decently long play session in order to make any progress, because if I didn’t finish the map, I’d have to start over again next time.

These annoyances might be a big deal for some players, but I honestly didn’t really mind, because From Dust was such an interesting and unique experience. It’s not perfect, but it’s absolutely worth a try. Manipulating the landscape is immensely satisfying and seeing nature evolve at high-speed is both fascinating and beautiful. When it seems the major game publishers are simply making the same military shooters over and over again, a game with the sheer imagination of From Dust is a breath of fresh air (that would be a good pun if I had actually explained that the force the player controls in the game is called “the breath”). I strongly encourage you to check it out.

Grab the demo or the full game on XBLA, or get the PC version from Steam or Gamersgate.