Unskippable cutscenes are torturous in a puzzle game.
The humble god game is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Give the player too much power and you wind up incapable of creating any sort of challenge. Give the player too little and you wind up with From Dust - you're a God, but only because you tell yourself you are - like Danny Dravot in The Man Who Would Be King.
That's not completely fair. You do have the power to manipulate the environment - or parts of the environment - which isn't something Sean Connery's character was capable of. At its heart though, From Dust is less a god game and more a puzzle game - so this environmental manipulation is primarily only used to solve the extremely simplistic puzzles on each map.
Your godly mission is to help some villagers make their way across the world - an act they're incapable of because they haven't yet invented the many things humans use to traverse obstacles like 'insignificant bodies of water'.
Maybe the point here is to have us reflect on the very existence of God - with a deity to watch over us would humanity have ever worked out how to build a boat, or to not build a village on the side of a currently active volcano?
Using your powers of world manipulation, you'll divert streams, create paths, put out fires and block natural springs. The villagers don't ever thank you for your actions - they don't even ask you to fix their problems. All they do is go the places you tell them to go and yell at you when their path is blocked.
They don't actually tell you what's wrong, either. Their cry for help when they can't cross a river is identical to their screams when their entire world is on fire, so you have no concept of the urgency of the situation. If a villager is screaming you drop what you're doing, swoop across to their location, sigh and go back to what you were doing.
Well, that is until you realise that your godliness is an utterly thankless task. Apart from the need to finish the game, there's no actual motivation driving the player to play From Dust - this is where it defines itself as a puzzle game. Your reward for completing puzzles is... more puzzles.
Itís possible the thankless nature of your job and the constant incessant whining of your people is a comment on the nature of God and his never-ending task of helping out people who donít seem to deserve his help. As interesting as the thought might be, I didnít buy an Xbox 360 so I could watch developers wax philosophical about theistic conundrums.
There's some semblance of a story - the tribe has lost its history, and so you have to help them get it back - but as everyone in the game speaks gibberish, all the cutscenes have subtitles as a necessity.
This means you have to read every piece of story in the game - it's not even told via the actions of the villagers in the cutscenes. I'm not averse to reading, but this realisation highlights another utterly annoying part of the game - the cutscenes are unskippable, and they're tied to the beginning of each level.
This is an issue because each time you first stumble into a new level, you'll want to scout out your objectives and create a gameplan. Most of the time it's advantageous (or an utter necessity) to immediately act when you start - so you'll scout out, figure out a plan and then restart the level so you can complete the puzzle properly. When you restart the level, you're then greeted with the same unskippable cutscene you were forced to sit through previously.
Throughout each level you're constantly reminded of the limitations of your power - you can manipulate sand, water, lava and trees, but bedrock is always there (unless you blow it up using an exploding tree). You also only gain more powers as the villagers capture new villages.
These powers range from water-stopping "Jellify Water" which turns all water into jelly (meaning it won't wash away your villagers), the ability to straight up destroy matter, put out fires, evaporate water and create 'infinite' sand.
Around the world are spells they can pick up which they use without your prompting - the ability to stop water and lava from swamping their village is a very welcome addition, and it highlights the excellent physics at play in the game world.
Most maps play on the concept of waves changing the landscape of the world you're in charge of. A tidal system in one map forces you to act only at certain times, and it will wash away your villages if you mistime your actions. The great thing is that the tides move realistically - but they're also affected in a realistic manner. Dumping an excessive amount of water in front of an incoming tide can actually slow down the movement of the water - if only for a little bit - thanks to an adherence to how wave physics works.
Sadly, the fact that timing is so important to your success in the game is another mark against it. From Dust needs a mouse, at the very least. It's hard enough to draw with a mouse - but most people can manage it to some extent. Painting mountains on the world with an Xbox Controller is utterly horrible. Worse still, the game suffers from the same sort of problems many RTS games do - scrolling around the game world isn't as intuitive as it should be.
The final nail in From Dust's coffin is the craptastic pathing for your villagers. When you send guys to complete an objective, it will select them from all over the place. You may have created a direct and obvious path from the closest village to your objective - but little morons on the other side of the map will also decide they want to be a part of the adventure, and they'll get themselves into trouble along the way. Trouble they want you to get them out of - though like I said, they won't thank you for it, and they won't directly ask for help.
From Dust reminds me of a quote from a great TV show - "When you do things right, people won't be sure you've done anything at all." I recommend taking this approach to the extreme in From Dust. Do nothing - don't play it - and perhaps the villagers will invent boats or something. I don't actually care what happens to them - and that's From Dust's biggest problem.