Wot I Think: Miasmata

By Alec Meer on December 13th, 2012 at 4:00 pm.

Miasmata is a first-person, essentially combat-free survival game by IonFx, aka brothers Joe and Bob Johnson, and it’s out now. I’ve been exploring its green and dangerous land, and here’s what I made of it.

Presenting the anti-Far Cry 3. Island setting, herb collection, dangerous wildlife, shacks, swimming and psychological peril. But no guns, no slaver gangs, no mystical tribes, no rich American tourists, no mini-games. Just survival. Survival from dehydration, drowning and disease. Plus falling down and a mysterious threat, but they don’t start with a ‘d’.

Miasmata is a first-person, almost combat-free game about botany, fear, exploration and orientation. A plague-infected outsider, you arrive on the island with only hints about your identity and the world you come from. Your overriding purpose is to find a cure for the disease which fever-ravages your body, with research and notes from missing or dead contemporaries who arrived here before you all you have to go on.

The trouble is that the journey to finding the cure is a long and arduous one in a, if not actively hostile then at least uncaring, environment, so a more pressing need becomes surviving that journey. Fever-relief medication is easily synthesised from the island’s more common flora, but with strict (too strict, frankly) limits on how many pills you can carry at once and the requiste creation stations few and far between, much of Miasmata is about trying to reach bubbles of safety before you’re overcome by what’s assaulting your immune system.

Nightfall and thirst make this even tougher, the former especially so. Miasmata lacks a HUD as you might know it, so orientating yourself and navigating back to required areas necessitates using your own eyes and memory first and foremost, and a triangulation system secondly. Even by torchlight, night-time navigation is hard and chilling on sight alone, so it pays to keep an eye on the time and make sure you’re not too far from a shack with a bed and fresh water when the light starts to wane.

Then there’s cartography, essential for longer expeditions into the unknown. This is a manual process based on age-old triangulation techniques. With your battered, very much GPS-free map out, peer at the world around you for two known man-made structures, then add a third, unknown one to get your bearings and add that new one to the map. In order to not feel – and be- helplessly lost, this strange and mathematical procedure needs to be performed regularly, and every time you spy a new landmark.

What you’re primarily up to as you wander into the great unknown is collecting flowers. This does serve a certain psychological purpose – oh thank God, life and colour in this lonely, uncaring place, but that’s probably me projecting. Really, it’s for medicine. Different species have different effects when turned into pills and tonics in one of the occasional rickety labs. Anti-fever tablets must be taken regularly, but with the right plants you can permanently increase your puny strength and agility. Which you’ll need to do because…

Ah. I need to be spoiler-averse here, but there is a big element of the game I simply don’t mention if I do. Suffice to say there is a threat on the island, and it is a threat to be fled from rather than fought. Also, your intitial reaction to it will be abject terror, followed by laughter when you actually get a clear look at it. Fortunately, your inability to combat it in any meaningful way means the need and urge to take flight recreates a necessary fear, of a sort, despite the ridiculousness.

And so this threat becomes a new and increasingly ever-present element to keep in mind as you attempt to make it to ever-further out parts of the island, something else to juggle along with dark, positioning, dehydration and illness. It’s a journey of tension and fear, but also with incredibly clear purpose despite having nary a hint of an objective arrow. Find the plants. Find new plants. Make medicines. Make new medicines. Keep going. The cure’s out there, somewhere. Just stay alive.

A raft of technical issues do interfere with the dark survivalist anti-fantasy the game largely successfully realises. The two chaps behind Miasmata created their own engine for it, and unfortunately such origins disrupt as much as they impress. While there are top marks to be had for vegetation rendering, the sheer size of the loading screen-free island and the day/night cycle, the pop-up scenery, scrappy textures and occasional crashes to desktop caused me to grumble. Then again – two guys created their own engine then made an incredibly ambitious, clever and alternative first-person game with it. That’s amazing. So to whine ‘but the hands look a bit rubbish’ is faintly absurd. More irritating is some overdone inertia in the character movement, so I regularly found myself plunging off the side of a cliff because the guy can’t seem to brake.

While actual death – and thus reloading a savegame – takes a bit of doing in Miasmata (though the lack of a HUD means you’re essentially working on wits and chance in terms of knowing if the next fall/attack/lungful of water will be fatal), a tumble or a near-drowning leaves you disorientated and vulnerable, often losing track of where you are because you can no longer see any landmarks. Plus you drop whatever you’re carrying, which is trauma incarnate if it was one of the rarer plants. This penalty for recklessness is a smart feature in terms of forcing caution on the player and keeping this from being a game about wildly sprinting about the place, but tone the ice-like sliding down a notch, eh? Similarly, only being allowed to carry three plants and one of each type of medicine at once seems far too arbitrary.

That said, there’s so much drama to be had from falling over or running out of tablets or getting lost or even seeing that silly… thing while you’re trying to grab a rare carnivorous plant, and that’s Miasmata’s greatest achievement. No cutscenes, no setpieces, no bangbangbang or bossfights. Tension and trauma from mundane errors made when there’s no-one who can possibly help you. Sure, it’s often awkward in both appearance and interface, and there’s an element of magic potions which doesn’t quite sit right with the grounded terror, but this is an important game, I think. It does Far Cry 3 without the macho power fantasy tropes, yes, but to some extent it also does Dear Esther without the limitations or auterish vibe that turned so many off it.

It’s a game about being in a believable place then having to survive in it on wits, compass and herbal remedies alone, and while it may be overtly low-budget in some ways it damn well succeeds anyway. This is a plague you’ll want to catch.

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115 Comments »

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  1. Guppo_26 says:

    So it’s like Skyrim, without guns?

    • lordcooper says:

      You just described Skyrim.

      • arleneroberts says:

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    • luukdeman111 says:

      It’s actually more like Dear Esther without knives

    • lokimotive says:

      It’s Skyrim with guns, without guns.

      • The Random One says:

        But Skyrim is essentially Fallout 3 without guns.
        And everyone knows Fallout 3 is Oblivion with guns.
        So Miasmata is Oblivion with guns without guns, with guns, without guns.

    • mrmalodor says:

      FLOWERFACE

    • MadTinkerer says:

      Or Ultima Underworld except you’re only allowed to put points into herbalism or scavenging or whatever the skill was called..

      • SuperNashwanPower says:

        Or manic miner, with all the stuff it didnt have.

        • vorvek says:

          It’s totally like Super Wing Commander (the 3DO version, specifically), if you take the concept of moving through a virtual environment recreated through computational methods. Just without guns.

    • domogrue says:

      So it’s Dear Skyrimout 3 with guns, except without guns.

      When Don’t Starve comes out, will that be “Dear Skyrimata”, I presume?

    • Runs With Foxes says:

      It’s better than Skyrim.

    • MistyMike says:

      This seems appears to be a spiritual succesor of some sort to Robinson’s Requiem… kids.

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        Jackablade says:

        Sounds like it’s slightly less inclined to kill you at the drop of a hat… although in retrospect, that might have just been my experience as a kid playing a game I didn’t really understand.

      • Geen says:

        No, RR killed you at the drop of a hat, as well as having unclear objectives. If you don’t murder the one friendly Robinson when you first meet him, the game becomes unwinnable.

  2. Premium User Badge

    AmateurScience says:

    How does one go about partaking in the above delights? There appears to be no purchase options on the linked page.

  3. Incredibly_Shallow says:

    I’m in. Sounds like they created something unique AND engaging.

  4. unguided says:

    It looks like Alec may have got a screenshot from my blog. If he did, its the proudest day of my life!

    http://www.wasder.net/miasmata-review/

    • Freud says:

      Let loose the dogs of the judicial system!

    • Skabooga says:

      Well, that does appear to be the same screenshot, certainly.

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      Sinomatic says:

      I could be wrong (might just be my eyes) but I think the one here has more detail to it (as though the graphics settings are set higher). Does look to have been taken at pretty much the exact same angle though, which is strange.

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      Christian Dannie Storgaard says:

      Yup, those are the exact same pixels indeed (minus some compression artefacts). Same resolution as well, only cropped.

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    BathroomCitizen says:

    Oh nice! This sounds good for my masochistic tastes!

  6. Freud says:

    The flower picking from Skyrim meets Amnesia meets Far Cry?

  7. Carbonated Dan says:

    they spoiled the beast in the teaser last month – but at what cost? I mean, still sounds cool but worth playing with such knowledge?

    • Unaco says:

      Yes. Haven’t even come across this Beast, and I’ve been enjoying it.

    • Hematite says:

      Knowing that the beast exists is only a minor spoiler; something like finding out that zombies come out at night in Minecraft. Figuring out what’s up with that goddamn beast is more important.

      FWIW I didn’t find the beast ridiculous. Perhaps it is if you look too closely. The first time I met it it was standing in the middle of the path I wanted to walk down, looking at me. I stood still. It advanced slowly. I backed away. It advanced faster than I was backing away. I turned and ran, fell over and… well, let’s just say I never stopped to look at the beast too closely.

  8. Christo4 says:

    But But… It works really bad on my laptop… I can run Witcher 2 at 40 fps constant and this doesn’t even go past 20 unless i stand still…

    I’m so sad now…

    • Stuart Walton says:

      There’s an issue with the game where there is a chance for it to fail to identify and use your 3D GPU if your machine happens to also have a GPU chipset on the motherboard.

      There is a workaround, look on the GoG or Steam forums, the devs have posted about it there.

  9. Vorrin says:

    Played with this a bit, found it quite fantastic, agree with the Dear Esther comparison.
    My only gripes this far, are that I’d love to have a freelook mode (alt in arma 2, basically), and that I really didn’t yet work out how the heck I’m supposed to deal with the creature.

    Aside from that , I actually really love the momentum system, the weather effects (clouds making the day look closer to night for short periods are fantastic, really wish there would be rain and stuff), and all the quirks :)

    This is actually making me want to dig out the old “Robinson’s Requiem”, anyone (who is old) remember playing that? Was it any good?

    • Tiax says:

      Unless my memory is ganz kaputt, rain is present in this game.

    • Hematite says:

      It does rain, although it threatens to rain much more often.

      I’d love a free look key too, although if I understand correctly trying to look around while you’re running is a great way to fall over and it would be a shame to mess up that mechanic. (but I’d love a compromise like free look when you’re standing still so you can have better situational awareness)

    • JackMultiple says:

      Requiem… wow, haven’t played that since back in “the day”. It was hard. I remember you died every few minutes. You could die from falling off a cliff, or a small rock, getting a scratch on your leg that got infected and spread through your body. You could die of thirst, starvation, fever, etc. But it was always for “a reason” that seemed fairly realism-based, as opposed to just getting attacked by metallic frogs or giant mosquitowasps.

      I’m guessing (because I haven’t played Miasmata) that RR is probably much harder for a lot of reasons, including a (probably) clumsier interface compared to this game. And yet… I kinda liked it. I didn’t finish it. Maybe nobody ever finishes it! GOG sells it, and the sequel Deus, in a bundle currently for $3US during the holiday sale.

  10. Epicedion says:

    Having played this a bit, I think it falls a little short. The game is essentially a static attempt at not dying while walking from point A to point B and back, and a test of player patience for carefully walking around an obstacle versus charging over/through it.

    The game also includes magical video game elements to make your life easier (teleporting inventory trays) while ignoring very basic reality elements that would make your life infinitely easier (fashioning a bag out of, well, anything). So you end up spending 20 minutes carefully retrieving a single flower, all the while wondering why you couldn’t grab a bouquet, or cram a few dozen specimens into your shirt or pants.

    It just seems like they could have made it more interesting. It’s certainly a fine concept.

  11. Paul says:

    Ubisoft Montreal should have this as a MANDATORY playthrough game, so they would get their stupid GUI/HUD ideas out of their god damn heads.

    Great review for a great, important game.

  12. sinister agent says:

    I definitely want to have a look at this sometime next year. It’s a pity they went and showed the monster on an earlier video, but still.

    More irritating is some overdone inertia in the character movement, so I regularly found myself plunging off the side of a cliff because the guy can’t seem to brake.

    Would it help to imagine he’s wearing rollerskates?

  13. SuicideKing says:

    The beast looks like a mean pokemon, if you ask me.

    • impeus says:

      From what I’ve seen in the teaser, it looks like the Gruffalo.

  14. SirKicksalot says:

    I think the brothers like Far Cry 2.

  15. InternetBatman says:

    If falling down (or gravity) is a threat you could survive drops, descents, and in some cases defenestration.

    • DJ Madeira says:

      You seem to be the only person on this planet other than me to have used this word ever. You have restored my hope in humanity.

      • SuperNashwanPower says:

        From my limited knowledge of German I am guessing this means having all the windows removed from your house. I am off to google now. BRB.

        EDIT: Well thats that theory out of the window

        HAR. I punned. DO YOU SEE?

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          Sinomatic says:

          You seem to have gone to great panes to make a joke. Don’t be so sill-y

          • The Random One says:

            Nonsense! It is the RPS way to make a pun at every window of opportunity!

    • kalirion says:

      Defenestration? That’s a terrible thing to do to a man!

    • Tancosin says:

      Defenestration sounds much nastier than it is. When I first heard it, I thought “Is that something like disembowelling for your genitals?” but then discovered it was actually just getting thrown out a window.

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        Jackablade says:

        That’s oddly specific. Doesn’t really sound like something that’d come up often enough to really require it’s own word. Are there words for throwing some down a flight of stairs or off a roof or at a cat that I’m just not aware of.

  16. junglist 69 says:

    Space Hulk -opps wrong thread……..

  17. Old Tom says:

    I wish Wurm had this engine .. and this gameplay.

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      Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

      Good news! It does! Except it’s called Miasmata, instead of Wurm.

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    strangeloup says:

    I picked this up not long after launch; it’s interesting and weird, and it really does give you the feeling of being in the middle of nowhere.

    It makes me think of survival-horror games, though with a larger proportion of the former, and very much unlike Resi or Silent Hill.

    Someone mentioned Robinson’s Requiem, and I feel I would be remiss not to mention that you can get it on GOG for $2.99 at the moment. I haven’t played it myself but I rather want to, and $3 seems like it’s worth a pop.

  19. Brise Bonbons says:

    Looks promising but I’m worried some of the overtly game-y mechanical choices would ruin it for me. Other than that it’s just my speed…

    Drat, dunno what to make of this one.

    • Hematite says:

      It didn’t seem overly gamified to me, apart from the noted case of only being able to carry two doses of medicine (one each of two types) and having a magic plant stash you could access at camps.

      The restriction of only being able to carry 3 plant samples isn’t much of a problem. Medicine is the only thing you really need multiples of but it’s pretty common anyway, and if you’ve got three unidentified samples it’s a good sign that you should head back to camp rather than exploring more.

      • Brise Bonbons says:

        Thanks for the response, might be enough to nudge me over to give this one a try. Seems an important one to experience for a bit, at minimum.

        I mean, we have so few games that spend any time developing mechanics for that most basic human activity, walking across varied terrain – that alone seems to be quite the reason to give this one a shot.

        Argh. Like I need more games in my backlog…

  20. Hematite says:

    I didn’t have nearly as much problem with the movement system as other people seem to. I’m planning to play through it again and check my assumptions, but I think the key points are not to turn sharply while you’re running (especially on uneven ground) and forget about strafing altogether. It’s a much more naturalistic movement model than most FPSs. Walk slowly down steep inclines – you’ll actually need to press S to slow yourself down or gravity will send you sprawling.

    Falling seems to be the key cause of needing medicine too. The plague and physical damage seem to be combined into a single health stat, so if you injure yourself you’ll start to suffer plague symptoms and have to take medicine. Conversely, I don’t think I ever needed to take medicine without being injured or dehydrated first.

    Also, the game will nudge you towards areas where you’ll get map fragments to help you along, but I had the most fun when I went off piste and cartographied my way through a new area.

    • Stuart Walton says:

      The inertia feels right when you are going down a slope. It is a little too heavy when on flat ground and ridiculously strong when you tap a strafe key. You can use the sliding to your advantage though, such as descending the really steep slopes by going down them backwards. I also wish there was a walk option, crouching is too slow. There’s a lot of tweaks and additions that would make this an excellent game, but when there’s only two of you working on it and you’ve been at it for a few years, you have to eventually launch at some point.

      Before I had got the grasp of how punishing this game can be for foolishness I had an amazing (read: harrowing) adventure when I tumbled down into a valley with a swamp at the bottom just as the sun was setting. Armed with just a lighter that cut about 3 feet into the darkness, my compass and a vague recollection of where I was on the map I had no choice but to blindly set out. I trudged all night through that swamp, then up and out through a forest. My eyesight getting poorer and the shakes getting stronger. My lighter fails at some point but the trees break up enough to let the moonlight through. When I emerge into the clear I have found a distinctly shaped bay. I look to my map to try and match it. It’s not there, but joy of joys I see a shack on the other side.

      Swimming would be suicide, so I walk all the way around, It’s a long and narrow bay and it takes what feels like all day. En-route I try triangulating off all the landmarks I see in the distance. None of them are familiar. I eventually arrive at the shack and am delighted to see that it is a fully equipped science station. Better than that I find a journal and a map! Turns out I had walked a long way to the North. Far from my intended destination. The journal describes a medicine that would reverse an aspect of the atrophy of my body. I crash into the bed and make plans to go hunt for the ingredients.

  21. goatmonkey says:

    I rather enjoyed the first stages but was having dreadful performance issues and so am waiting for a promised patch before I venture back in.

  22. SuperNashwanPower says:

    The *redacted* monster was in all the trailers already, so its not really a spoiler. It looked like a rip off of the *redacted*. A *censored* with a *redacted* sticking out of its head and a massive *censored* between its legs IIRC.

    • Premium User Badge

      Rikard Peterson says:

      But if you consider how careful Alec was not to mention it, do you really think putting that spoiler in a comment is a good idea, even if you disagree that it is a spoiler? (Some of us haven’t seen that trailer you’re referring to.)

  23. The Random One says:

    I’ve been bugging the RPS machine to do this WiT for a while, and while I don’t dream to be able to dictate the whims of the glorified blog, thank you for doing one.

    Now do Ace of SpadOW STOP HITTING ME

  24. Turin Turambar says:

    Sounds interesting, but… is there any more gameplay that picking up flowers (and not dying between picking flowers and returning to your “base”?

    • Runs With Foxes says:

      Yes. The comparisons to Dear Esther are not accurate. The only thing the two games have in common is a lot of walking around, but Miasmata is actually a game.

      The remarkable thing about Miasmata is how your self-set goals will constantly change depending on the situation you find yourself in. From the very beginning of the game, you only have one ultimate goal (cure yourself) but from there you will set yourself various goals: go here, collect this flower, explore this area, make this medicine, travel to this new camp.

      But those goals are frequently interrupted and changed as things happen to you. You’re thirsty so you need to find water; you explore a new area and find new information and set new goals based on that; you encounter the creature and get run way off track into an unexplored area; you get some information about an important ingredient for the cure and strike off in a different direction to pursue that instead; and so on.

      It’s a proper open world game. Whereas most ‘open world’ games have a linear Main Story running through it, ultimately serving to restrict your freedom, Miasmata presents one single main goal, and it’s entirely up to you how you go about meeting it.

      I have a feeling Alec would prefer the game ditched the ‘game’ part and just allowed him to walk around picking flowers. But the things he says he doesn’t like much, like the inertia modelling, the falling down hills, the limits on medicine, is what creates the tension and results in meaningful player choices. They make the game, in other words.

  25. Premium User Badge

    Dilapinated says:

    “That said, there’s so much drama to be had from falling over or running out of tablets or getting lost”

    You should try being disabled, then. ;) (though to be honest I quite like the idea of my life being an odd indie survival game)

    Definitely interested in picking this one up, hadn’t heard of it before now. It sounds great.

  26. oldfart says:

    Minecraft HD? Have you already tried to punch trees ?

  27. captain nemo says:

    Finished it yesterday. Hoping for a sequel

  28. Greggh says:

    Schiffbruch, UnrealWorld, Stranded, Notrium, Stranded II… ahhh, all these survive-in-an-inhospitable-environment-while-crafting games I love, they now have a fellow companion :D

    Welcome Miasmata!

    • Vander says:

      Yes and no…

      Its not the same type of survival that the games you cite. (i played them all).

      The crafting is very rudimentary, combat is nearly non-existant, and overall you don’t have much to do.

      Not a awfull game, it has good points like the ambiance, but its not what i expected…

  29. ScorpionWasp says:

    When I saw the trailer I was excited that this was a game you “could actually do science in”, but sadly the science is completely abstracted away. When you remove the flavor cosmetics from the system, it’s undistinguishable from, say, having to take items back to the merchant so he can identify them and their effects. Just replace items with flowers and merchant with a microscope. Even the flavor text you get when you “research” plants is total uninspired, arbitrary bullshit.

    When will we get a game where the *meaningful* aspects of science are actually modeled? You know, having to devise open ended experiments, keenly observe things, formulate competing hypotheses, filtering through them, about a complex system where everything affects everything else (like the real world)?

    • webwielder says:

      Maybe you should just be a scientist?

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        Dilapinated says:

        I don’t think that’s fair. I think there’s more to be explored of the sciences in gaming than just fetch-quests.

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    Gap Gen says:

    Alas, poor Synthesis Tray A and Synthesis Tray B, I knew them well.

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    felisc says:

    while we’re on the subject of “good looking original games about exploring and collecting” … i remember rps posting about that “Craddle” game something like a year ago. It looked promising. anyone has news on that ? Meanwhile, Miasmata sure looks yummy.
    No one seems to mention anything about sound, is there any music in the game ?

  32. Slinkyboy says:

    Thanks you for sharing my game RPS!! I’m swimming in Washingtons thanks to you!!

  33. Hulk Handsome says:

    How does this compare to Robinson’s Requiem?

    I bought that off GoG a while ago and really loved a lot of it, except I kept dying from dehydration and had no idea why. I would drink plenty of water but my thirst meter would just shoot down right afterwards!

    It’s a shame, it did so many neat things.

    • Vander says:

      Robinson’s requiem (and Deus, the sequel) are fairly more complex games.

      In Miasmata, you have no fight to speak of, far less possibility, far less depth.

      But Miasmata is also far less clunky and ,obviously, far more beautiful. But this is a fairly different game.

      I have to say that i was disappointed by Miasmata tough. It have some great mechanics, like the map system, but lack of depth, which i research in a survival game. This make the game repetitive. Its still an impressive game for a two person team.

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    maninahat says:

    I’m not sure why you’re worried about spoiling the “threat”. It’s right there in all the trailers (and it looks ridiculous their, too).

  35. AgentBJ09 says:

    Between Far Cry 3 and Miasmata, I’m liking this game more.

    The exploration and hiding from that cat-beast stand out the most with me. Otherwise, the backstory is a treat as well.

  36. DestructibleEnvironments says:

    Thank you for the review, sir! I enjoyed it.

    Just one question: With this pill addiction (I don’t mean it), does that mean there is a time limit on the game? As in, I cant just look at the scenery for 10 hours straight, without fear of dying of the plague? I don’t like it when games rush me – It’s very mean.

  37. Squire says:

    “This penalty for recklessness is a smart feature in terms of forcing caution on the player and keeping this from being a game about wildly sprinting about the place, but tone the ice-like sliding down a notch, eh?”

    Can someone please explain what the end of this sentence means:

    “…but tone the ice-like sliding down a notch, eh?”

    Is my brain broken?

    • Hematite says:

      <unnecessarily serious mode >
      The idiom is “tone X down a notch”, meaning “make x less prominent”. I think it’s meant to be like turning down the volume knob on a stereo or something.

      X, in this case, is “ice-like sliding” which refers to the movement in Miasmata. If you run forward or down a hill at any speed you’ll keep going for a bit after you let go of the movement keys due to some inertia built into the game engine. A simile is used to liken the effect to sliding on ice. I find it more like sliding around on the loose leaf-litter of a forest floor, but hey.

      “eh?” turns the sentence into an appeal rather than a command, as in “Stop being such a pedantic killjoy, eh?”.

  38. Bios Element says:

    Why the hell did they need to ruin what could have been an awesome survival game by making it a survival horror? We have enough of those already. :/

  39. Citrus says:

    I like how in-depth the reviews on RPS are. No mention of video settings, game settings, sensitivity settings.. nope.

    Then again, most of the time these people are playing games with gamepads and recommending them..

    Anyways, the game is shit. Gets boring after one hour when you realize there really isn’t anything else to do (collect flowers, find water.. ooooo exciting). Comparing it with a superior game like FC3 is a insult to all those people who spent making that game.

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    PampleMoose says:

    Really, it’s Myst with less surrealism and more death. And that is definitely a very good thing.