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.