The rewards are worth the trials.
I never thought a plant could mean so much. Lost on one of Miasmata’s numerous trails, I fell down the side of a hill and lost a potentially life-saving flower. One misstep – one moment of panic – and my progress towards a cure for my fatal illness had been halted. I told myself this was only a temporary setback, but finding my way back to the precious flora was going to be anything but easy.
Moments like this punctuate the indie survival game Miasmata. Deserted on an island called Eden and stricken by a deadly plague, it’s up to you to survive the wilderness around you as you search for a cure. Eden is full of medicinal plants, but learning how they can be used, not to mention acquiring them in the first place, comes down to braving the unknown. Along the way you’ll find a few notes that allude to the larger world, but it’s not all that important. What’s important is the act of using the tools at your disposal to survive.
As a scientist the greatest tool I had while exploring Eden was my intelligence, which meant exactly nothing when I found myself face to face with hungry tiger-like creatures or struggling to pull my feverish body across what would normally be an effortlessly crossed stream. Survival is arduous in Miasmata, but because it’s so hard it also makes you appreciate everything you find. Even though the first knife I came across ultimately didn’t prove all that useful, it still empowered and emboldened me more than any world-destroying fantasy weapon I’ve found in a shooter. Likewise each new plant I plucked from the crowded jungles and woods of Eden became more precious than a family heirloom, because each was necessary to keep going.
These plants are the key to ending the plague that’s ravaging your world. There’s little story told about how bad the plague is and how far it’s spread, only that it exists and you have it. This means that exploring in Miasmata becomes especially intense because, unlike other games, it’s not about reaching a specific point, but about finding everything you can as you go. Often I’d just pick a direction on my compass and wander, charting unknown territories on my map and all the while anxiously scanning my surroundings for anything that stood out. The faint white of a flower petal or vivid orange of a carnivorous plant made my eyes widen with greed and excitement, and I’d scrabble down mountaintops and put myself in peril repeatedly if it meant I might just find something to ease my troubles.
Pain and suffering come easy in Miasmata. Fever strikes regularly, blurring your vision and slowing your progress. Swimming across tiny waterways can result in drowning due to your weakened state, which forces you to find ways around them. Sprinting to save time or get to a save point might mean you might accidentally fall down a cliff or mountainside, rolling end over end before waking up disoriented and damaged. Miasmata scares you not with jack-in-the-box style monsters, but by presenting an array of natural challenges and the morale-siphoning element of total isolation. No one will help you unless you help yourself, and picking yourself up after almost drowning, or finding your way through the dark by simple torchlight becomes a test of will. It also makes each new discovery, whether it’s a bed to recuperate in or a plant to experiment on, a joyous occasion of momentary stress relief. One second I was sprinting for my life, wondering why the hell I ever decided to scale the mountain I’d just fallen off of, the next I was so excited about finding the spotted flower that I wanted to pause the game and call someone to discuss my wild success.
Part of the reason Miasmata haunted my waking hours when I wasn’t playing it, was that without any sort of real tutorial, it smartly revealed the intricacies of its design through gameplay. The occasional note explained basic gameplay systems, but most things were learned simply by acting on curiosity. White flowers became easily recognizable as sources of pain medication, while the gross yellow mushrooms found on some trees became treasures once I figured out their strength-enhancing properties. I tried to avoid areas with patches of high grass or reeds because I regularly encountered the tiger-like predators that stalked me. I obsessively checked my watch to avoid getting caught in the dark of Miasmata’s day / night cycle. Miasmata just does such an amazing job at capturing the stresses, joys and other emotions of survival, as well as teaching you about the laws of the natural world. Each play session became an opportunity to learn something exciting, to be scared and to take part in an unconventional gameplay experience.
Few things can break immersion like a bad interface, and Miasmata smartly avoids one whenever possible. You’re a human being without any futuristic technology, meaning you won’t have any sort of HUD while you’re running around. There’s also no pause button (though you can hit escape to quit the game), and bringing up your notebook or map doesn’t stop what’s going on around you. The rare prompt might tell you when you’re really sick or thirsty, but largely it’s up to you to monitor yourself for labored breathing, blurred vision – anything that tells you about how you’re feeling. This all combines with the well-developed world and interesting gameplay systems to create an adventure that’s easy to lose yourself to, and that lingers in the mind long after the credits roll.
Miasmata does plenty to stand out with its gameplay and sense of place, but it’s not without its fair share of issues, either. From severe framerate issues to omnipresent texture pop-in to straight up game crashes, Miasmata often feels unfinished. Repeated textures and chunks of the environment also stand out sometimes, and Miasmata is far from a pretty game due to its dated graphics. Still, it’s easy to get so wrapped up in what Miasmata does well that it manages to be a good game nonetheless.
Miasmata is unlike anything I’ve played. It makes the very act of survival an intense learning experience, and manages to do so without beating you over the head with lengthy tutorials. Instead you’re placed in a situation and left with nothing but your curiosity and desire to live to succeed. Surviving in Miasmata is not about the ending or the story it tries to tell, but the journey. The journey will be tough. The journey will be a trial of patience and will. The journey will be perhaps one of the most memorable you’ll have in a PC game this year.