Review: Miasmata

I’ve always liked to think I could hold my own in a survival situation. Y’know, track down a feral hamburger if my plane crashed in the Sahara jungle or whatever. Truth is, I’m as likely to survive a spell in the wilderness as I am a meteor strike to the back of the head.

Driving this uncomfortable point home is Miasmata, an ambitious indie title in which you play a scientist washed up on an island that holds the cure for a pesky plague.

It also holds a trail of dead bodies and the stink of something afoot.

Welcome to Miasmata, where good boats go to die.


After a short introduction-slash-tutorial, the game lets you loose on the island proper. Your job: to not be dead. This means drinking plenty of water, getting enough rest, and using plants and mushrooms you find to fend off the plague and buff your abilities. Also, it means trying not to get mauled by the vicious creature stalking your every move.

All this plays out on a vast island covered in jungle and dotted with ancient ruins. Really, the prettiness on show – especially the volumetric clouds – can be astounding at times, considering the fact that IonFX’s Bob and Joe Johnson built the whole game, including the engine, from scratch. It’s not perfect, and it has issues with clipping and tiling, but overall it does a grand job.

And it’s a good thing that it’s pretty, because you’re going to be staring at it a lot while you’re lost as the jiminy. The game features a clever mapping system, in which you use the cartographic technique of triangulation to plot your whereabouts. So clever, in fact, that even after I had figured out how to take a bearing using landmarks around me, I had no idea where the hell I was. (Full disclosure: I am fully capable of getting lost in a small cardboard box.) It is kind of fun filling in the map, but it gets a bit cumbersome and long-winded for a mechanic that needs to be repeated so often.

This is what a map of being lost looks like.

Miasmata is my sort of game, and I’m enjoying it greatly, but this sense of awkwardness is prevalent.  For example, the game handles movement well for the most part, except when, well, it doesn’t: you develop momentum as you move, which makes running about fun and kinetic, but it also translates into the sense, sometimes, that you’re steering a rally car rather than a person. Added to this, the character holds his arms out at all times, like he’s a bit sad and wants a hug. Swinging a weapon is similarly off-kilter. It ends up feeling uncanny. Maybe it’s the plague.

Speaking of uncanny, let’s talk about the AI. Miasmata is teeming with life, from ants and beetles to rabbits and birds. It’s great, until you realise they’re all on near-fatal doses of Valium. Birds, for instance, will often quite happily sit around until you practically stand on them. Because of this, the wildlife feels like a front more than part of an ecosystem.

The main gripe I have, though, concerns survival games in general. In theory, gallivanting about and trying to stay alive using nothing but your bare hands and the power of the scientific method is cool. In reality, survival is hard work, and hard work isn’t fun. All too often, survival games become an endless chore.

But just look at those clouds, would you?

One of the issues at the heart of this is the problem of feedback. IonFX have worked hard to do away with such distractions as HUDs, and I applaud the sentiment, but HUDs serve a vital purpose: they keep the player informed about things that are otherwise hard to get a handle on.

Take thirst. How do you, as a game developer, communicate the need to have a drink? As yet, we do not have parched-throat feedback devices. Miasmata handles it by blurring the screen and having the character gasp about and be generally useless for a bit. Which would be okay, except this is the same thing that happens when the plague gets uppity.

To find out the specifics, you have to open up your journal, whose front page magically displays what ails you. So yes, there’s no HUD, but going through a two-step process to figure out whether you need to gulp a bit of river or take your medicine is actually more invasive to the experience.

And while Miasmata pares down the survival aspects, it handles them a bit oddly. You can only carry a single batch of any particular medication at a time, for one; make more and it essentially disappears. Also, your avid scientist carries everything he gathers in his hands, and tends to lose them in a fall or a swim. Backpack, anybody?

What to do when falling: get used to it.

On the other hand, the game may have pared the survival mechanics down a bit too much. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not looking for more busywork. It’s just that it would have been nice to have been able to hunt, or fish, or craft things. But in the back of my mind, I remember that this is the product of a two-man team, and its scope remains admirable.

I’m probably complaining enough to make it seem I don’t like Miasmata. Thing is, I really do. It’s a remarkably compelling game, thanks to the awesomeness of exploration and the enjoyable plot, told in bits and pieces through abandoned journal entries.

The game really nails it with the nightmare creature on your trail. You’re never sure where it might be, and it feels properly like being hunted. It’s a wicked touch, ratcheting the experience out into something both tense and lonely.

In case you were wondering, no, it doesn’t want to snuggle.

As a whole, Miasmata survives its flaws. Interface niggles accumulate to interrupt the flow of play, and the sense of immersion is undermined by a few bizarre bugs and a relative lack of interactivity, but the game still manages to find it’s rhythm.

I can’t recommend it to everybody, but I can certainly recommend it.