I’m exhausted. I’ve been wandering for at least an hour across rock and dirt without hearing a sound beyond the croaking of frogs. I have no idea where I am. I’m frail and weak and the sun is setting. I have no idea where to go, and my sense of direction is completely useless deep within the thick forest. My compass doesn’t help and my map? My map just looks like a set of lines decorated with dots and dashes, like a pre-schooler got into the arts cupboard and started throwing paint around. I need to find shelter. I need to sleep. I need to do this both in-game and outside it, as a player. But I persevere. That’s what Miasmata is all about – perseverance.
Even though Miasmata offers little in the way of tutorials, it is not a very difficult game to understand. You’ve been exiled on an island and you are very ill. To cure yourself, you’re going to have to study the plant life of the island and develop your own remedy. Early on, the game tells you how to achieve that and then steps back and lets you explore on your own, going whichever way you feel is best. It is this freedom over the game world that is most exciting about Miasmata, but it is also one of its most frustrating features. At times, you may well wish you had a guiding hand, a gentle nudge in the right direction, but if you listen out for whispers on the lush, green island of Miasmata, you’ll only hear crickets.
There are almost no enemies in this game – the two most prominent obstacles are your failing health and the environment you must traverse. The former manifests itself in a number of ways: you cannot sprint for eternity without becoming weak and you must constantly rehydrate yourself to keep from getting groggy and slow. It’s these small incremental losses that begin to stack up against you as you progress, making it more difficult to traverse the varied terrains the game throws at you. The weaker you are, the steeper cliff faces seem, the quicker you drown and the more likely you are to run out of breath trying to climb that mountain face. It’s a brilliant give-and-take that adds a genuine layer of personality to a game with no dialogue. It’s like the island from LOST in a way – it is up to the player to rebel against the island as much as they can and uncover the mysteries that it hides.
To ensure your health remains “ok” (as indicated by a note in your one earthly possession: your journal), you must forage for plants and then take them back to one of the many outposts located throughout the island. These outposts function as shelter and as laboratories, kitted out with a microscope and scalpel, along with microscope slides, for all your plant-dissecting needs. As a scientist at heart, this part of the game excited me most, but it eventually just amounts to grabbing whatever plant life you can pick up on your journey and placing it onto a wooden tray for safe-keeping. However, it is incredibly important that you constantly keep an eye out for any new plant you find as they are a way of ‘levelling’ your character – you can concoct a number of remedies that give you small bonuses, improve your health and ultimately let you travel further and further into the island.
And the island is unforgiving. The excerpt at the beginning of this review discussed just one journey deep into the heart of the island that left me with very little sanity. You see, Miasmata’s other challenging mechanic is actually keeping your bearings across its varied terrains. To truly master the game, one has to master triangulation: taking out pieces of a map, pointing out at least two landmarks and identifying where you stand. It’s like GPS for people born in the 1800’s. The use of a primitive map and compass to determine your position in the game world is a master stroke in that it significantly increases the tension and atmosphere but unfortunately, as an actual mechanic, it is frustrating and clunky to have to constantly pull out your map and re-establish your position. In an age where we can immediately determine where we are (and even where all of our friends are) at any given time with a device that sits in our pocket, I initially found it very hard to come to terms with this idea.
It is even more difficult to orient yourself as you get further and further into the jungle – not only then do you find one of the game’s only enemies stalking you from between the trees, but the amount of landmarks you can use to actually locate yourself on the map become fewer and fewer. Of course, orienting yourself in the jungle at night is near impossible, and you will want to take every opportunity to find shelter and sleep before the sun sets. There was many times when I failed to look at my watch during an extended hike and before I knew it I was knee-deep in a swamp with only a lighter in my hand. Miasmata isn’t afraid to completely take away your visibility, whether that be through the difficulties of mapping or the complete darkness of night.
Death is often around the corner and the penalty is harsher for every step further you take away from an outpost (and save point). Sometimes you’ve been travelling for hours without rest and you find yourself drowning in the night and sometimes you’ve just left a camp site, axe in one hand, medicinal plants in the other, taking in the beauty of the landscape without much fear. Either way, Miasmata constantly asks you to persevere – to understand the island’s nuances – it’s magnificence and fear rolled into one. Miasmata is an exhausting, draining hike through a jungle where it sometimes doesn’t feel like the end will justify the means, but it is a smart game that pits man against nature and himself.
More importantly, it pits the player against themselves and makes them ask questions. “Can I keep playing?”, “Do I want to find out what lies over the next hill?”, “Is anyone of this really worth it?” and I found that I was quickly answering those questions with optimism and positivity.
- Reviewed On