Discover the cure to your illness on a dark and dangerous island.
PC Release: November 28, 2012
By Ian Coppock
Tonight’s review marks the final installment of September’s survival game lineup. FarSky was a game about finding tranquility in survival, while Adrift examined outlasting a disaster of one’s own creation. Sky Break was an attempt at surviving for the sake of others rather than just the self. Miasmata is about none of these things: it is the basest of survival games in that the player is out for their own skin and nothing else. If they’re not careful, that skin will get ripped right off.
Miasmata is an open-world survival horror game created by brothers Joe and Bob Johnson, who also work under the moniker IonFX. The title was released in November of 2012 in a state unlike virtually any other survival game on Steam: complete. Yes, just like FarSky, Miasmata forwent being an early access title and skipped on over to finished product. Hell, FarSky and Miasmata might be the only two open-world survival games to do such a thing on Steam.
Anyway, Miasmata is implied to take place in the early 20th century and stars botanist Robert Hughes as its player character. Robert has fled to the mysterious island of Eden to discover a cure to his illness: a debilitating plague that has physically weakened him and will probably kill him sooner rather than later. Robert has arrived to Eden hoping that he can synthesize a cure from the island’s native flora. That mission is the goal of the game: explore the island, study its flowers, and make a cure if possible.
Even though Robert is an expert botanist, he has his work cut out for him finding the cure. Eden is home to dozens of flowers and fungi, all of which could help bring about a cure but need to be carefully studied first. Each region of the island is home to different flora and demands careful exploration. Some plants only appear in hard-to-reach areas or during specific times of day, making exploring the entire island a must for players who hope to find the cure.
Fortunately for Robert, he’s got the equipment he needs to succeed. Eden was once home to a thriving community of scientists, all of whom conveniently left a string of houses and laboratories for players to make use of. Being scientists, most of them also left a ton of notes behind, so players who are up for a bit of reading can speed things up by plagiarizing from their peers’ observations. Players can use these labs to study plants and recover from the rigors of exploration.
Because Miasmata is a survival game, players have to take care of themselves while out in the wilderness. Robert apparently photosynthesizes his food, but still needs to drink water every so often before becoming dehydrated. Additionally, Eden is riddled with cliffs and hidden pitfalls for players to watch out for. Robert’s also not a very good swimmer, so don’t go out too far on those sunny beach days. Better to stay on the shore and just glance at the sea from afar.
There’s another, much more sinister danger to Eden. Though a game about gathering plants may not sound scary at first glance, Robert is being hunted. A monster stalks the forests of Eden looking for human prey, and will kill Robert if it so much as sniffs the botanist. Robert has no means of self-defense should the monster show up, so players who hope to survive can only do so by hiding until it passes. Who knew picking flowers could be so dangerous?
Miasmata starts out with the same conventions as many other survival games, giving players a first-person perspective and a handful of meters to manage. All players really need to do to stay alive is stay hydrated; Robert carries a canteen that he can refill at most camps and there are plenty of sources of fresh water on the island. Some players might prefer calling this system “survival-lite”, but they’re are still being challenged to maintain their character’s health in a wild environment. Close enough.
Miasmata forks off on its own path by attempting to model realistic movement physics. Robert doesn’t stop or turn on a dime, moving more like a real human would in a wild environment. The game also attempts to simulate momentum; players that run toward a slope too quickly may tumble and fall to the ground. The system sounds neat on paper but often feels clunky while actually moving around. Robert has to take wide turns to get around, and it’s surprisingly easy for him to hurl himself off of a cliff. This is one of those titles where a few small, deliberate movements are better than mindless running, even if it’s only because Robert sometimes feels like he’s walking on jelly.
Robert’s lack of coordinated physical movement could be chalked up to his illness, but Miasmata‘s clunky controls feel more like a gameplay shortcoming than a story point brought to physical life. Robert’s character animations are similarly amateurish; his arms and hands are visible in the shot and sometimes bend at… interesting… angles when he’s refilling his canteen or doing some science. The character is quite frail, so take it easy when walking near precarious drops. Miasmata also allows players to map the island via triangulation; this mechanic too is clunky, but the attention to realism is nice.
Far more interesting than Robert’s movement is Miasmata‘s focus on botany. In order to find the cure, players have to gather plant samples and bring them back to a nearby laboratory. They can use the equipment therein to study different plants and their properties. Some plants are necessary to craft the cure, while others are useless. Still other plants can be synthesized into lesser kinds of medicine, allowing players to restore their health or gain temporary buffs like increased movement speed. Miasmata‘s lab work is some of the coolest science-ing in video gaming.
As fun as it is to stay in the lab playing mad scientist, Miasmata truly comes alive through exploration. Eden’s environments are verdant and vary considerably from region to region. Some parts of the island bear tropical coasts while others are rainy groves reminiscent of the Pacific Northwest. Still other regions encompass swamps, plains, and canyons. All of these areas are meticulously detailed with doodads like fallen logs and thick undergrowth. When paired with wildlife like birds and butterflies, these details help Miasmata‘s world feel alive.
Miasmata successfully conveys that vibe even though its visuals are basic. The Johnson brothers can work wonders with object placement, but that doesn’t stop those objects from being rough around the edges or bearing noticeably aged textures. The textures on flowers are particularly rough. Miasmata shouldn’t be glossed over because it looks a bit old (even by 2012 standards), but the game’s proprietyary MILO engine was definitely built on a budget.
Miasmata also has one of the kookiest lighting setups in recent gaming memory. Seriously, this title’s lighting is all over the place; players can be walking around in the sunlight but the area around them will be lit with flat light. Contrary wise, it’s not uncommon to see areas that should be shadowed lit unnaturally brightly. The lighting also seems to change when players glance at the sun; one look toward ole big blazey and the environment suddenly becomes pitch black. It’s a strange setup.
Fortunately, neither dated visuals nor wonky lighting can stop Miasmata from looking pretty. Despite the smudgy textures, the game still looks like a verdant island paradise thanks to its use of bright, strong colors. Additionally, the game’s water and sky boxes look impressively realistic even by contemporary standards. Miasmata’s environmental features are a mixed bag, but the negatives don’t stop the game from giving off a wild, unexplored vibe.
That vibe of being on an uncharted island is part of what lends Miasmata its intoxicating atmosphere. It’s easy for players to get lost (both figuratively and literally) in Eden’s wilds while out looking for the cure. Miasmata builds its atmosphere by foregoing music; what few tunes the game has are pretty, but the title is usually content to leave players alone with the sounds of nature. This design choice reinforces the game’s nature vibe and makes the environment all the more engrossing.
Of course, leaving players alone in nature also makes Miasmata more tense. Players never know when the monster is going to show up, and there’s nothing more terrifying than wondering when the sound of birds chirping will be shattered by a distant roar. Avoiding the monster isn’t all that difficult, but wondering when it’ll show up and making sure that Robert is close enough to a hiding spot keeps players on their toes. The sight of Miasmata‘s wilderness inspires both awe and fear.
The capstone of Miasmata‘s chilling atmosphere is its storytelling. Robert doesn’t talk and there’s no truly active storyline that exists outside of gathering flowers, but there’s plenty of exposition to be found in the scientists’ settlements. Players can expect to find bits and pieces of conventional world-building, but there’s also a hidden story about previous events on the island and their implications for Robert’s quest for a cure. Sans the occasional spelling or grammar error, it makes for interesting reading.
What’s more, Miasmata structures its exposition and environments to tell a story. As Robert makes his way around the island, it’s implied that his trip to Eden is more than just a quest to find the cure. Miasmata makes chilling use of environmental storytelling, leaving corpses and telltale signs of destruction around the island. Funny thing about the dead scientists; a lot of them seem to have been killed with a knife, not the beast’s claws. What’s going on out there?
There’s no denying that Miasmata is rough around the edges. Its visuals are dated, its movement is spongy, and its lighting is on drugs. None of these things, though, stop the game from being one of the best survival experiences available on Steam. The title has a thick atmosphere befitting a horror game and an engrossing world that players will want to explore every inch of. It runs well on computers new and old and comes complete with a decent options menu. More than that, though, Miasmata confers the tension of surviving in an uncertain, dangerous environment in a way that few survival games (Early Access or not), can. It delivers tense exposition and environmental storytelling that, at times, are as frightening as its monster. That’s why everyone should buy it.
You can buy Miasmata here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.