Miasmata review

The journal, a crucial tool in your quest for a cure.

The journal, a crucial tool in your quest for a cure.

The story of Miasmata is quite thin.  You play as Robert Hughes, a scientist who has found himself stranded on the island of Eden.  As he wakes up, he finds that he has been stricken with a devastating plague, a plague that he will die from if he doesn’t find a cure.  Lucky for him, the island he finds himself on was at one point home to a research team trying to find such a cure.  The player must explore the island and find the necessary elements to synthesize a cure before escaping and returning home.  At the same time, he or she must avoid the mysterious creature that constantly stalks around, looking for another meal.

What little story there actually is all comes from journals of the original scientists found in the various huts and tents around the island.  Many of these talk about the plague and their attempts to find a cure. Later, one of the scientists hallucinates and falls into the typical “I’m going insane and found blood on my hands” craziness that I’ve come to expect from games of this type.  I started out trying to care about the backstory, but I soon found myself not giving a damn.  This information is completely non-essential and can be safely ignored in favor of the meat of the game.

There are two unique gameplay elements at work in Miasmata: cartography and botany.  Unlike your typical game which fills in a map as you explore, this game expects you to make most of the map yourself.  You get a very small amount of given information from the few maps you find around the island, filling in small sections for you, but the rest is up to you through triangulation.  To find yourself on the map, you must have unimpaired eyeline to two “known” landmarks (meaning already present on your map); by noting both of these with your map open, you are able to trace the intersection of those sightlines and find out exactly where you are  This also expands the map by a very small amount.  Furthermore, you can also make “unknown” landmarks “known” by doing the same process in order to give yourself more landmarks to consult if you get lost..

It’s important to note that you have to do this CONSTANTLY.  Your location is not marked on the map, unless you reference it with landmarks.  If you don’t keep your reference landmarks up to date, you may find yourself lost with no idea where you are and no way to check.  The island is absolutely massive and losing the path and your way is more a guarantee than a possibility.  It’s a terrifying and thrilling prospect, one that demands you have a good sense of direction (with the help of your compass) and dedication to mapping your path.  Never before have I felt a video game location was so real, forcing me to explore and learn actual geography and scouting techniques in order to survive.  I actually enjoyed wandering around and finding new locations; it felt like I was discovering a whole new world all on my own.

A glimpse at the map, with lines for "unknown" landmarks.

A glimpse at the map, with lines for “unknown” landmarks.

The other unique gameplay element in Miasmata is the botany.  Scattered throughout the island are various plants with a multitude of effects.  You take these plants to a laboratory, several of which are located around the island, and examine them to learn their synthesizable effects.  Some can be distilled into medicine, a necessity when your plague symptoms flare up and make you feverish.  Others can make a variety of tonics or boosters to temporarily or permanently increase your stats.  Six plants are particularly important, as they are the ones you need to synthesize your cure.

You can figure these combinations out on your own, by gathering random plants and putting them together to see what happens.  It’s easier, however, to find various notes that give you hints as to what needs to combine for various effects.  Finding the notes tied to the various cure elements is your first goal, as it can take hours upon hours to stumble upon them yourself.  These notes also hint at locations for necessary plants, testing your mapping and exploring skills in order to find them.  I loved the thrill I felt when I finally tracked down that one plant I needed for something–and felt a slight chill when I remembered I would have to carry it all the way back.

The plague affecting your character makes exploration difficult, essentially acting as your health bar; a few tumbles and he is soon at risk of death.  Expect to fall down hills quite often, especially as you are getting used to the game’s realistic momentum.  If you start running, you move extremely fast. Stopping can take a few seconds, especially when at top speeds.  When hills are involved, this process can take even longer.  I can’t count the number of times I teetered over an edge and found myself rolling for several seconds, the darkness seeping into the corners of my vision as the plague worsened.  This momentum system was a bit frustrating at times, when I couldn’t get my character to stop and lost both health and progress, but I eventually came to appreciate the challenge it brought.

For the size of its development team, Miasmata has its pretty moments.

Miasmata has its pretty moments.

Miasmata can be quite a difficult game, especially if you aren’t careful.  You can only save at beds and light sources, most of which are found within outposts.  Also, you only have one save slot (per each of the three files, at least); saving in a bad spot can potentially ruin your game.  It is direly important that you keep medicine on hand at all times, because you never know when the next chance to synthesize some will come up.  I had one point in the game when I was afraid I was going to have to start over, as I was feverish and quite far from any outposts.  I had to reload several times, eventually finding the best path to make it just in time.  It was intense and invigorating, but I probably would have been heartbroken if it hadn’t worked out.  I advise extreme caution when exploring new areas.

The monster stalking you seems quite intimidating at first.  You can go over an hour (like I did) without ever encountering it, maybe not even knowing it exists if you haven’t done your research.  No matter what, it will eventually appear..  You can’t really run away, as it’s much faster than you are, and it doesn’t stop chasing you until you reach a light source.  It appears and disappears at random, making it hard to predict.  As I encountered it multiple times, the terror became non-existent.  If anything, the monster just became an annoyance, getting in my way while I was trying to get somewhere.  Since he pursues you so quickly, you are better off just waiting for him to kill you and loading another save, hoping he won’t be in your path the next time.  I understand what the developer was going for with this mechanic, but it ends up being a waste of the player’s time.

For the size of its development team, Miasmata is an impressively atmospheric game.  The sounds of the island set the tone perfectly: light rainfall, the chirps of birds and other animals, and the startling growl of the monster.  While it is a bit flat in design, the vast scope of the island is astounding.  There are some rather good lighting effects in place, including a dark nighttime that is easily the darkest I have ever seen in a game by default.  I was truly frightened to step outside at night, both for fear of the creature and getting entirely lost. I highly recommend avoiding any exploration at night for all but the boldest of players.

Miasmata is an impressive game, especially considering it came from just two people: a pair of brothers who worked on it together.  Is it rough around the edges?  Yes, absolutely.  It is, however, a very unique vision that could only have come about from such a small developer.  The mapping and botany mechanics are uniquely fascinating gems that you would likely never find in a AAA-game.  The game’s island may not be as visually impressive as Skyrim, but I found it much more fun to explore and discover its many intricacies.  Unlike any game before it, I wanted to poke around and find everything on my own.  It is a wholly-unique experience, one that I suggest to anyone who thinks it might be up their alley.

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