Review: Miasmata

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I want you to try to picture a skill-based walking simulator. Stop before you get a nosebleed and pass out, just try to imagine how that would work. If that hurt your brain, then I’m happy to report that the fellows behind Miasmata came up with a pretty good approach to this conundrum. And while it certainly might not be for everyone, it’s a pleasing and occasionally terrifying adventure for those it is.

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Miasmata is set in some kind of alternate 18th century where a plague is ravaging a society mistrustful of medicine. You’ve been infected and have traveled to a remote island where a cure is rumored to have been found. You soon find the island’s inhabitants have all met strange and unfortunate ends, so it’s up to you to concoct the cure yourself. This journey will take you to every corner of a sprawling and beautiful island, and pit you against something that doesn’t want you to succeed.

Because your avatar is deathly ill, there’s not much more he can do than wander the island and collect plants to study. To create the cure you’ll have to follow in the late researcher’s footsteps, obtaining clues from their notes as to which plants must be combined in which ways. You can research the samples you find to make all sorts of medicines that heal or boost your strength or perception. Early on you can follow the paths between camps to make a lot of progress, but soon you’ll be left to explore the island’s open wilderness yourself to succeed.

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The big challenge in your way is finding your way around. You have a map and a compass but it does not update automatically or even show your location. Instead, the game has a whole orienteering system to master. To triangulate your location, you have to sight two of the landmarks that dot the island. This will fill in a chunk of the map around you, and add nearby landmarks as known. You can only use known landmarks to triangulate, but once you establish your location you can mark new landmarks as seen. Mark them from two different locations and they’ll be added as known.

It’s a tricky system to get the hang of, and it drastically changes the approach to the game because getting lost in the wilderness is a very real concern. As a compromise towards survival, you only need to drink water to keep your illness at bay, but you can only get it from camps, fresh ponds, or your canteen which holds five draughts. Lose your way for too long and you can easily run out of water. The nights on the island are also exceptionally dark, which can make it nearly impossible to navigate home and add the very real threat of stumbling off a cliff.

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There are a lot of nods to realism in the mechanics, but none quite so dramatic as the movement physics. Of all the games I’ve ever played, Miasmata has probably the most realistic walking physics, and it can be just as awkward to wrangle as you’re imagining. Your character slows down greatly when strafing or backing up, and can hardly climb inclines when doing so. Walking straight can get you up most hills, but make one misstep and you’ll find yourself sliding or tumbling back down. You build momentum, too, so descending steep hills can easily become one of the most dangerous parts of the game. This might not sound very fun but considering how much walking there is in the game, it actually helps that it’s something you have to learn to master.

I mentioned a malevolent force on the island as well, but honestly it’s a mixed bag. The creature is threatening and searches for you aggressively, requiring stealth or certain behavior to shake it from your scent. However, in the six hours I’ve put into the game so far, I’ve only encountered it three times. Twice I escaped by plunging off a cliff (falls don’t kill you instantly, so you can medicate out of danger if you’re prepared), and the third I heard it coming and simply turned around and backtracked until it disappeared. For most of the game it’s bound to be a non-issue, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t panic a little every time I heard it about.

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In the end, Miasmata is really a hiking simulator first, a survival game second, and a horror game a very distant third. Most of your time with it will be spent deciding where to go, mapping out how to get there, and strolling along the beaches and forest paths. You can accomplish a lot just by sticking to the paths, as most of the critical camps are connected and give clear clues to what you should be looking for. The core design is solid, with some intelligent flow to the island and the discoveries, and it’s backed up by some very competent indie graphics and genuinely good sound design. Not everyone is in the market for open-world hardcore walking sims, but if that sounds even a little interesting to you, I think Miasmata will be a pleasant surprise.

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