Review by SSpectre
"Miasmata plays like a tech demo without any impressive technology worth demonstrating."
+ Navigation/exploration focus is a refreshing change of pace
+ Island setting is rendered in exquisite detail
- Horrible controls manage to be both slippery and choppy
- Island setting is designed solely for realism, not gameplay
- Sloppy graphics and sound kill the atmosphere
- Cliched, predictable narrative
When I was about ten years old, I was hiking in the woods, and I envisioned a game of the future, in which every detail of the forest was perfectly rendered, and every step and interaction required the same amount of calculation that it would in real life. I think virtual reality was involved. There wasn't really any gameplay again, I was ten, and the idea of a perfectly simulated woodland path was enthralling enough. But now developers IonFX have come out with Miasmata, which is pretty much that exact game, as much as it can be made with current technology. And it reminds me why game ideas I had at age ten were pretty ****ing terrible ideas.
The game stars Robert Hughes, an amnesiac scientist afflicted with a terminal case of plague, and recently exiled to a tropical island. The only other traces of life on the island are a mysterious creature who stalks Robert across the jungle, and the corpses of other scientists, which were pointedly not killed by the creature. Robert must survive the wilderness by finding water and shelter while gathering medicinal plants and developing a cure for his illness. As a narrative, it's almost patronizingly conventional Robert Hughes has amnesia, a scientist named Herbert Gouhs purportedly went insane, and now everyone's dead...not exactly world-class intrigue here. But as a device to drive the game mechanics, it's an interesting concept.
This is a true exploration-based game, where the order you complete tasks in is completely irrelevant, the smallest abandoned outpost is a momentous discovery, and most importantly, your blank map must be filled in using a unique triangulation-based cartography system. While most games outline everything for you and treat getting lost as a penalty for being stupid, Miasmata is a game about getting lost, and if you don't learn to move and plan carefully, you'll end up wandering aimlessly in the dark, praying you find a cabin before succumbing to fever. There's been an exploration-shaped hole in my heart left by the absence of decent Metroidvanias these past few years, and Miasmata's structure fills it nicely. But nothing says indie game like a promising concept with a botched execution, and it's been a while since I've played a game that botched its concept's execution so completely.
First offender: the controls. With no combat or traditional puzzles to solve, the journey itself had to be where the game found its challenge. IonFX's way of accomplishing this was to simulate Robert's individual footsteps and up the sensitivity of slopes until each slight hill feels like it's coated in K-Y Jelly. The result is a control scheme (with control in massive quotation marks) that alternates between feeling like you're piloting a broken AT-ST, and feeling like you're wearing blocks of ice around your shoes. And since Robert's plague exacerbates physical trauma, rolling down 5-foot drops will be the primary way you take damage (here represented by fever severity). Not that movement is the only victim; in an effort to increase atmosphere, your journal and map appear in-game, which is cool in theory but only makes for a slow-moving, unintuitive interface in practise.
On the subject of atmosphere, Miasmata is trying really hard to draw us into its world, but for every feature it boasts that does so, there's another that drags us back out. The most obvious of these conflicts is the island's astounding realism vs. the graphics engine used to render that realism. The island is possibly the most believable natural setting in games; it features plenty of unforgiving terrain and gradual climate changes, not to mention an enormous scale. There's a plethora of small wildlife around, all well-animated and with realistic behaviour to match, and graphical effects like weather changes and light shafts make for some truly immersive scenery.
But scenery means nothing when your graphics engine is as sloppy and inefficient as this one. Objects and textures pop in by the hundreds as you move around, usually within twenty feet of your position, so you get to see them all appear in their fuzzy, immersion-breaking glory. Many terrain textures have a glitch-like line effect on them, making them look like sheets of coloured corduroy. Some things, notably blood and Robert's various research specimens, look blobby and downright ugly. And to top it all off, the game doesn't even run smoothly. My computer passes the Crysis benchmark handily, but this shabby little indie game with a draw distance of twenty feet causes it to go choppy at ~85% max settings. Just let that sink in.
The audio isn't immune to this contradictory design, either. The ever-present animal sounds and atmospheric noises like rain add an impressive ambience to your island exploits, but your awful sliding footsteps (which sound like a grater scraped across tree bark) do not. And while I think Robert making grunts and gasps of exertion could've worked in moderation, listening to him cough, sputter, and pant for hours on end just gets uncomfortable. On the plus side, the snippets of song heard when encountering a former settlement are well-suited to enhance the feeling of serenity achieved during those moments.
Ironically, the realism that's such a huge selling point for the game is also one of its biggest flaws, because the island's design is only concerned with realism, regardless of how conducive it is to gameplay. For example, triangulating your position requires two known landmarks. If you can't see two known landmarks (which is often, because the island is home to hundreds of trees), then you get to venture into the unknown essentially blindfolded, just hoping to stumble upon something useful. Additionally, sometimes you just want to go straight to a location, only to find a chasm or rocky hill blocking your way, forcing you to trek all the way around it to get where you're going. This would be decried as padding in any other game, and I refuse to spare Miasmata that criticism simply because it's realistic, as if that makes these sections any more entertaining to traverse.
And just to emphasize how ill-suited the island is as a game setting, Miasmata is plagued with a feeling of untapped potential, and not just because 99% of its world is made up of empty space and trees. The island is overflowing with peninsulas, ruins, and flowery clearings, all of which would be prime territory for secrets, collectibles, or even just a neat visual setpiece, but instead they're just...there. The result is an exploration-based game with no rewards for exploration besides boredom and frustration. But the most glaring omission is the existence of weapons (including swinging animations), but no targets to use them on. The only use for Robert's right hand in the entire game is holding the occasional torch for nighttime exploration. But even then, nights in Miasmata are so long and impenetrably black that you're better off just sleeping till morning.
If Miasmata is remembered at all, it'll be for its interesting ideas more than anything. While the story is more of a punchline than a mystery, the game's non-linear nature at least makes its delivery worth experiencing. The creature hunting the protagonist is also a unique opponent, drawing behavioural inspiration from the monsters of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, while being a visually remarkable mix of panther, lizard, and bull. And let's be honest: it's rare that we see a mapmaking system that amounts to more than a glorified pen and paper.
But to actually play the game is an arduous struggle against technical problems and constant disorientation. I could never recommend a game whose gameplay consists of running from place to place, desperately hoping you're walking along a path, rather than something that just looks like a path, while also hoping you don't spontaneously drop to the ground because you walked over a ****ing anthill. And I really can't recommend one like this, where every supporting feature designed to reinforce the gameplay is so consistently flawed. In summary, hiking in the woods is neat, and a simulated hike can be just as neat, but a poorly simulated hike may as well be a $15 splash screen reading, Go outside, you idiot.
Reviewer's Score: 3/10 | Originally Posted: 02/15/13
Game Release: Miasmata (US, 11/28/12)
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