Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Miasmata


     Maybe I'm cynical, but it's often obvious to me that for all of the innovation and exposure Steam's brilliant Greenlight serve affords low-profile indie games, it also affords plenty of games free publicity that they didn't need in the first place or simply didn't deserve. Take for instance, games created by popular internet personalities, or indeed, ridiculous rip-off games 'inspired' by console exclusives, or just simply a game that attempts entirely too hard to cash-in on a popular trend. These games are now getting more attention than ever, and games that truly deserve attention and that are truly innovative are now more than ever dying by the wayside. It's sad really.
     But, there is one thing about this system that I do find both humorous, and encouraging, and that's that plenty of games can now get greenlit easily by simply looking like something it's not. You call it false-advertising; I call it poetic justice.


     Case in point: Miasmata, a survival game. "Like Minecraft, yeah?" and based on that misconception, a few tons of votes later Miasmata was one of the first games to be greenlit. After release, when gamers finally got their hands on it, there were undoubtedly a few tons of Minecraft fans that were confused: this game wasn't at all like Minecraft!
     Believe me, this is a good thing. Miasmata is one of my favorite kinds of trend-followers: the kind that turns the trend in question on its head and in turn offers an entirely new kind of experience. Whereas Minecraft can be either a good 'filler' game or a serious, epic journey across a foreign land depending on what mood you're in when you play it, Miasmata is an intense battle for survival that can only function as a serious, atmospheric experience to fill hours upon hours of your time in rapid succession. It offers narrative in the place of crafting and world generation. It offers tension and horror in the place of building your own mountain fortress. Above all, it offers breathtakingly beautiful vistas and a uniquely living, breathing world with an interesting and mysterious history, and I wouldn't have it any other way.


     Miasmata's story starts off with a whimper rather than a bang: you wake up next to a little wooden rowboat with some pop-up text informing you that you are suffering from a deadly plague that mankind has yet to find a cure for. Luckily, you yourself are a scientist, and you have come to this mysterious, yet-unmapped island in search of the right medicinal herbs to complete a cure and, in the process, save both yourself and mankind in general. Things start to pick up a little when you first stumble upon your first dead scientist, discarded in the thick brush of Miasmata's central unnamed island. There are also tons of scientific outposts that have already been set up across the island, each with their own dead scientists adorning them, setting up several compelling mysteries right from the word go: why are these scientists dead? What killed them? If this island is indeed yet-unmapped and unexplored for the most part, then why are there so many expensive outposts set up across the island filled with mostly complete research? Wait, I thought I was mankind's last hope? Where did all these posers come from?
     But that's only part of Miasmata's mystery: the scientists leave behind journals in their wake that explain their experiments prior to their murder, and also fill you in on some of the finer details of the story: island lore, news stories from the world at large, and mentions of a mysterious 'beast' that seems to be stalking the scientists and making life difficult for them. Indeed, this game is keen on the 'show don't tell' design philosophy, and although their are big ancient monuments dotting the island, and tons of strange locales (I nicknamed my favorite the 'Forest of a Thousand Creepy Eyeballs') Miasmata never explains it all away, and rather, actually expects you to fill in the gaps yourself.


     While Miasmata's story doesn't contain a whole lot of payoff and doesn't provide a whole lot in the way of concrete answers, its narrative is a great central mystery that kept me going until the very end, which could take anywhere from 10-20 hours to arrive, depending on how lucky you are with finding outposts and discovering new plants and herbs. Overall, the narrative's main draw is that it gives the island itself a very distinct sense of place and a creepy foreign quality. You never feel safe, and the mysterious ruins and such give the island a sense of history and culture that many games ignore entirely. The game's setting is actually the game's most interesting character in many ways, and it's definitely the biggest draw for players who want that 'special something' in their games that make them click even as they get tedious or overly difficult. The story will draw you in, and the island's mystery and beauty will keep you playing until the very end.
     On the gameplay front, there's a whole lot going on here. Controlling your character, for instance, takes the survival horror approach of making movement something of a chore. The controls manage to make your character feel both incredibly heavy and equally slippery and weightless at the right times. It's like controlling the world's heaviest ice cube: it may be hard to gain speed in Miasmata, but once you do, you'll more often than not want like hell to stop. This makes every adventure dangerous, meticulous, and tenseMiasmata is not a game for the impatient gamer, as one wrong move can set you fatally back and leave you dying out in the middle of nowhere.


     This is all thanks to the game's 'fall' mechanic, which allows you to trip and fall if you run too fast on tricky terrain or decide to sprint straight down a steep cliff. It leaves your character rolling and careening down mountainsides as you look on helplessly, watching all of your precious work go to waste. The mechanic is at its most demonic when your character happens to be holding any precious plants you've found, which all get thrown carelessly to the side when you begin falling, ensuring many frantic searches as the sun begins to fall and you hear growling begin to emanate from the darkened jungle. Oh yeah, did I mention this game has one of the most terrifying night/day cycles I've ever seen before?


     But continuing my previous thought, plants are everything in Miasmata. Searching for them might even be the game's central mechanic, if it has one. The overarching goal of the game is to create three mixtures that can be combined together to create a cure. The problem is, you have no idea what the alien plants on the island do, so you have to pick up every new plant or flower you find and examine it at one of the outposts in order to determine its usefulness. Oh, and you can only ever hold a few at a time and only one of a single species at a time, which means that stockpiling is essentially impossible, and carting a large number of rarities back to your base takes a long time. Remember what I said about accidentally falling and losing everything you were holding? Yeah, well that's ultimately what keeps the fetching from ever growing old. If you zone out and fail to pay enough attention to what you're doing, you could lose the one plant you need to complete the game and set yourself back to square one. Or perhaps it's getting late, and you're just headed back to your camp after a hard day's work, when suddenly: you spot a rare new species. Carting something rare back to your home as the sun goes down, and your field of vision grows dim is an experience that can't truly be matched by anything else out their in the survival genre currently. Miasmata's tension is its greatest asset and what keeps it from feeling like anything else on the market today. It's practically a horror game.


     But all that tension is eased by what are perhaps the most breathtaking visuals of their kind. The island feels real, and lived-in, with every square inch bursting with activity and life. I couldn't stop snapping images the entire time I was playing, as it felt like I was taking some kind of tropical sightseeing tour. The game's mapping mechanic encourages you to climb to great heights to map out new territory, and this in turn encourages you to constantly stop and gawk at the beautiful vistas on a regular basis. The skyboxes in particular, while sometimes a bit oddly colored, are a thing to behold. One thing's for sure: if this game really was made by only two people, those two people have somehow outdone almost every other game on the market in creating such a realistic world that manages to be equally colorful, and overall just a joy to look at.
     Discovery is the name of the game gentlemen. Miasmata is about the little moments; the unscripted moments of wonderment, horror, or just plain magic that happen once you settle into a routine of mapping out new territories, searching them for new plants, carting those plants back to your camp, and turning in for the night, excited to see what you discover the next day. It's one of the most immersive games I've ever played, and it's a testament to what indie devs are really capable of: beautiful visuals, a richly detailed world, and atypical gameplay that helps reinforce the horror aspects fantastically. Bravo, Miasmata. Bravo.


Verdict: B+

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