Friday, March 22, 2013


If you're wondering who built these things, well, tough.
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be shipwrecked on a tropical island? Have you ever wondered what that scenario would be like if you had a crippling disease that could only be cured through the use of drugs manufactured from local plantlife while you were hunted by a bizarre monstrosity against whom there was no defence save hiding? If so, then Miasmata may be the game for you. Created by two brothers by the names of Joe and Bob Johnson, Miasmata is a first-person survival experience in which you play as Robert Hughes, who has arrived on the island of Eden seeking the legendary cure for a Plague which has devastated his homeland. On the island you find the ingredients you need for manufacturing the cure as well as the suspiciously deserted research outposts of your scientific colleagues, along with in many cases their brutally murdered corpses, taking a hearty slice of inspiration from, I can only assume, Milton, and Lord of the Flies.
Just like in the travel shows!
The first thing that must be said about Miasmata is that it's an incredibly atmospheric game. Given that it was entirely developed by these two brothers, and the programming was done by one of them, it has graphics to rival the latest big release titles by major game developers, with an astoundingly realistic environment replete with believable topology and foliage. The island of Eden feels absolutely, convincingly real, from its swampy valleys to its shimmering beaches to its bare, ruin-strewn deserts. The limited resources of the team are evident, of course - the textures aren't of the highest resolution, for instance, but the details are nonetheless present. The water and lighting are particularly impressive, from dim dawns to days with a variety of weather from bright sunshine to thundering rain, to moody dusks and finally to realistically dark and impenetrable nights with nothing but moon and stars giving negligible illumination.
The welcoming committee.
As such you must manage your time as you explore Eden looking for the ingredients to make the cure. Robert is sick, and the greatest threat in the game is really from the Plague itself. Mr Hughes cannot run or swim very far, nor climb or descend very steep inclines without the risk of falling. He also needs regular water and sleep. Exerting yourself strenuously in any of these scenarios brings on fever, which without the aid of medicine will steadily diminish Robert's health. As such as one explores the island there are numerous factors to consider: how far it is to the nearest shelter, how well provisioned you are with water and medicine, what time of day it is, and most importantly of all, perhaps, where you are.
This is one of Miasmata's most unique features: its cartographic system. Eden is covered in Moai-esque statues and other landmarks essential for orienteering. There is no persistent position on the map; Robert can only discern his location in relation to at least two landmarks, which also allows him to fill in more of the map, uncovering more features. It is also possible in this way to triangulate the position of other, unknown features so that the map can be filled in elsewhere. This can be a frustrating feature, but it can also be satisfying as you get the hang of discerning your position and get a better grasp of the layout of Eden. It's very easy to get lost, especially at night, and so it's important to keep the map's development consistent.
Run through places like this in terror of a green cat.
Keeping the map up to date is also essential because of the game's focus on exploration. You are guided towards the first couple of plants you need to formulate the cure, but beyond that you are largely left to your own devices to roam the island and discover the remaining ingredients wherever you may. The many existing shelters on the island, where you must seek safe haven in order to sleep, save your game, restock your water and research plants, are also replete with notes to fill out the game's interesting, if subtle, backstory, as well as give you advice on where to go next.
Live like you've always dreamed: in a shack!
This brings about one of the most important elements of the game: research. Robert can hold up to three plant specimens at a time, and bring any of these to a microscope and it may be researched, which reveals what properties the local flora has. This permits you to manufacture weaker and stronger medicines for alleviating fever, as well as temporary and permanent boosts to your strength, stamina and awareness, to help you move further and faster and keep yourself safe, all of which assist in the hunt for the Cure.
Climb pointless staircases.
Many of the ingredients of the Cure, however, are guarded by the Creature, a nightmarish monstrosity resembling a large, greenish, antlered cougar. The Creature cannot be harmed; it cannot even be fought, only distracted, avoided, and fled from. It is fast and deadly, but its behaviour is programmed in an effective way such that if you make eye contact with it you are generally unlikely to be pounced, and fire and other thrown implements will attract its curiosity so that you can hopefully escape. Improvements to Robert's clarity stat greatly assist in this regard, as an indicator appears onscreen when crouching to reveal whether the Creature is near. Fortunately I only encountered the Creature after I had acquired this upgrade, which makes it significantly easier to escape. The Creature is an unsettling enemy which had me clinging to the shoreline, where it is less likely to spawn, for many in-game days so as to avoid it for as long as possible, because the sense of threat in the face of this invincible enemy is real and palpable. There is a genuine and unpleasant feeling of being hunted and regularly in danger, especially in thick woodland and valleys where it is easy to become disoriented and lost.
Come home to a real fire.
There are a few things I might complain about; for instance, some of the temporary boosts seem to have a negligible effect. Additionally, cartography can be confusing and frustrating, especially if you have a limited range of vision - trees in particular easily obstruct distant landmarks. Thirdly, Robert's limited inventory can at times seem needlessly restrictive: you can only carry whatever you can hold in your hand or store in the pockets of your journal. It seems like there's not much justification for the limited inventory. You can't store duplicates of medicine, for instance, or carry additional plants of the same type. The Journal too can be confusing and slow to navigate at times, although generally it's a useful tool. My biggest complaint really would be one that spoils the immersion somewhat: all of the text in the game is in dire need of a proof reader, because it is full of spelling mistakes that either make the flavour text seem amateurish or genuinely confuse pieces of information conveyed about gameplay.
Feel an overwhelming sense of isolation.
Nonetheless, Miasmata is an engrossing game, and I'd thoroughly recommend it to anyone who wants to try something a bit different. If you have the patience to explore a beautifully realised environment (and marvel at the talent of two developers with no million-dollar studio doing the legwork) and are willing to face your fears and uncover a disquieting mystery about science, politics and the darkness of the human soul, I can heartily recommend Miasmata. It's a unique experience and Eden is one exotic destination I am grateful for having visited.

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