You awake on the beach of a jungle island, your ship a wreck in front of you. The prologue informed you that you have a plague and that somewhere on the island, researchers have been working to find a cure. And with that about your only setup, Miasmata is away!
Within a few minutes you encounter the first signs of the research team – a dilapidated shack which apparently acted as a laboratory. There are a few clues this was its purpose, the workbenches, beakers and ubiquitous blackboard all scream “SCIENCE”, though the setting seems more Deliverance than A Beautiful Mind. A cryptic note scrawled on the blackboard serves to foreshadow a lot of what is to come: “You are being watched”
From this short description, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you were in some sort of mashup between Dear Esther and Lost, and frankly you wouldn’t be far wrong. A mysterious creature stalks you across the island as you search for the cure to the plague, and you’ll discover further ruins of the research outpost, along with notes and journal entries that provide narrative about the broader world and setting. Again, the comparisons with Dear Esther are fairly unavoidable here since this kind of discoverable exposition puts you in a similar situation of piecing a story together from short snippets and trying to contextualise them for yourself, albeit with significantly less introspection and room for interpretation.
The core thrust of the game centres around a crafting system that sees you harvest a variety of plants from the island, research their properties and distil them either individually or in combination to create potions that can have effects from healing to enhanced perception, as well as increasing your three core attributes. Ultimately you’ll have to synthesise the cure using the same techniques, drawing on special plot-centric plants that are introduced by following chains of discoverables notes. It’s a solid implementation of a system that underpins the theme of the game well.
Exploration is another big theme and one that is significantly more involved than the crafting. You don’t know where you are on the island, and simply exploring isn’t enough to chart what’s around you. Instead you need to find landmarks, use your compass to triangulate your position and once you have a fix, a portion of the map will be revealed. If you spy a landmark in the distance, and you have worked out your current location already, you can reverse this process to fix the landmark’s position on the map by finding it from two separate locations and drawing the sight lines out on the map. For anyone who’s been hiking, this will be a fairly familiar process, but to see it replicated in a game is fairly jaw dropping – this is such an excellent implementation of exploring!
Another very cool feature, which admittedly takes some getting used to, is the idea that your character is part of the physical world. Momentum and acceleration play massive roles in your movement, and as you come down from mountains, it’s very difficult not to build up a lot of speed. That’s bad because move too fast for a while and you will trip and hurt yourself. It sounds ridiculous but it serves to create a really immersive experience trying to pick your way down a hill without losing your footing, and again it’s this kind of attention to detail that that seems to be what Miasmata is really trying to emphasise.
Your character also has an array of needs – he needs doses of medicine to reduce fever, you need to keep him watered and he needs rest, which handily serves as a save point. We’ve seen these kinds of Sims-style motivations be used to drive a character before, with the notable recent version of this being Day Z, and although it doesn’t play a massive role (you get given a water bottle right away that holds 5 drinks and water is hardly scarce on a tropical island), it’s an interesting touch that again is pushing the realism and suspense just a little bit more.
Unfortunately, it isn’t all roses with Miasmata. The engine has been developed from scratch, and whilst a tremendous achievement on a technical level, it really does let the side down in a number of places. Bounding boxes don’t quite line up, so plants placed on tables have a tendency to submerge themselves in the wood, whilst grabbing a rock might involve extending your hand 6 inches past the rock. Additionally, there are performance issues. On my machine, which is still a fairly reasonable bit of kit, there were too many framerate drops – if not altogether stops. There’s also no clear differentiation between interactive and non-interactive objects from a distance – including plants, which can lead to frustrating detours while you find a way to cross a ravine, only to discover that the interesting looking plant you wanted to harvest is just a piece of eye-candy.
All of these technical issues could be overlooked if it wasn’t for the biggest problem with the game – this mysterious creature wandering round the island. There’s definitely something to this creepy sense of being stalked, and it makes you very wary about your next move – as well as staying in one place too long. That said, I’m not entirely clear how you’re supposed to deal with it. I’ve tried to find ways to avoid it, to scare it off, to distract it however after having a number of run-ins with the creature it has effectively become the point at which I roll my eyes and reload my last save. Neither swiping at it with a knife nor with a burning branch had any effect, and whilst throwing a burning branch may have distracted it a bit, it has yet to give me the opportunity to escape. Either there’s nothing you can do to scare this thing off, or maybe there is something and it’s not been explained to the player – in either case, it’s a pretty fundamental issue – random unwinnable encounters are not fun or compelling.
Overall, the best way to describe Miasmata is “interesting”. It’s a great example of what you might call experimental gameplay and it clearly is not afraid to try something new, which is exciting and encouraging. I want to love this game so much, the dev in me can see what it is the IonFX team are trying to do and it could be so great; the gamer in me points out how far apart what they are trying to do and what they have done are.
It’s a shame; there are hints here under the surface showing the game Dear Esther could have been, if Dear Esther had bothered to include a game at any point. It’s got the potential to be the game that Day Z would have been if it had gone in an offline single player direction instead – that same emphasis on survival against the environment. However, the execution is too rough around the edges both technically and in design. It’s very hard to justify a walk-in-the-woods simulator coupled as it is with a seemingly random death mechanic. As a tech demo and an example of the gameplay ideas it’s founded on, it is stunning and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some aspects getting more widely “adopted” by other titles, or for the dev team to go on to greater success. However, as it stands I don’t see that there’s enough entertainment value to recommend it to a broader audience, particularly at the current price point. If you like the things it brings to the table, it is definitely worth keeping an eye on, and the rest of you might consider picking it up at the next Steam sale when you can get relatively more bang for your buck.
6 lost, lonely plague victims out of 10