Love To Hate Miasmata
Have you ever played a game that you both love and hate at the same time? A game that you constantly rage-quit, yet keep going back to? Well, I’ve discovered that feeling for the first time in my gaming life. The cause? The fiendishly difficult, yet strangely addictive, indie title from IonFX, Miasmata. It’s an exploration and survival game that’s like a cross between Lost In Blue and Amnesia, but far more frustrating than those two titles put together (is that even possible? – Ed.). A mere hour after starting it up, I found myself smashing the exit button and cursing the game and all those who made it. When the fury and swearing subsided I spent the next ten minutes or so staring at my desktop in a mixture of shock and contemplation. “What the hell just happened? I’ve never done that before.” Most games I play, I either like to varying degrees or, more rarely, I feel apathetic or uninterested towards and simply abandon them.
Still feeling slightly confused, I put it out of my mind and went back to playing something familiar for the rest of the evening. However, my thoughts that night as I was trying to sleep, kept turning to Miasmata. “Maybe if I’m more careful…” “Maybe I just need more practice…” “Damn fever…” “If I can just avoid getting lost…” All this ended with me determined to try again. A few days later things had improved somewhat, but progress was slow. I found myself only being able to play for an hour or two before getting hacked off and wanting to go on to something else, and for some strange reason I always felt exhausted afterwards. I’m not sure if this is because of how much concentration and focus are required or if it’s just that immersive. Either way, I couldn’t figure out why I kept going back to it when I kept telling myself that I hated it, but after about a week and a half of the on/off affair, I realised something: Miasmata had got under my skin. I was starting to like it and I was determined to beat it.
With my new attitude and steely resolve I decided it was time to get serious. “You’re going down.” I changed my wallpaper to one of the creature featured in the game (for motivation) and scoured the net for a map to help me out. Don’t judge me if you haven’t played it, trust me, you need the extra help. From then on, every time I booted up my computer and was confronted with the glaring beast I’d glare back, tell it its days were numbered, and fire up the game for another session. Lots of proverbial blood, sweat and tears later (much later) and it’s done. The creature is vanquished and I can finally stop poring over that giant, fucking map. (Twelve A4 pages!) Just as I was about to complete it though, I felt a strange reluctance, and realised that perhaps I’d been enjoying myself after all.
Miasmata is a game I recommend to anyone who likes a challenge, loves in-game exploring or relishes playing cat and mouse with a large, deadly and slightly unusual-looking monster. If you’re thinking of giving it a go, or you just want to know what the hell I’m talking about, then there are a couple of things you should know.
You take control of a man named Robert Hughes, a scientist infected with an unknown plague. Being in first person perspective means you won’t see anything other than his grubby hands and there’s not really an inventory in the traditional sense (in fact, the dire lack of pockets has me convinced that he’s running around naked. Just don’t ask where he puts his journal). The game starts with you wrecking your boat on the shore of a huge, remote island called Eden where several of your colleagues have set up a scientific research outpost to find a cure for the plague using the island’s unique plant-life. After finding your first bloodied corpse, It doesn’t take long to work out that something has gone horribly wrong and you are alone. Or are you? As time passes you come to realise that a sinister and deadly creature lurks in the lush grass and verdant forests… and it’s hunting you. Your goal is to survive long enough to find a cure for your illness and escape the island. Sounds simple? Yeah, that’s what I thought too. I was wrong.
And the Science gets done
In order to create a cure for the Plague you have to synthesize three separate components: Agent X – the Antibiotic, Agent Y – the Anti-Toxin and Agent Z – the Adjuvant. To achieve this you have to discover different species of plants scattered around the island and perform research on them in one of the many laboratories you come across in your search, to discover their properties and what they can be used for. This is done in two stages: examination – to tell you what it can be used for, and synthesis – to produce something. Medication to counteract fever can be made, along with various performance enhancing drugs, both temporary and otherwise. And no, none of them are little blue pills stamped with a ‘V’. Unfortunately, you can only store one of everything in your journal and the plants don’t grow back, so be careful how often you get a fix.
Burn baby, burn
Quite a few plants on Eden can be used to create both Basic Medicine and Extra-Strength Medicine, which is a good thing since you’ll be using a lot of it. In the early stages of the game, so-much as stubbing your toe earns you a fever, and if left untreated it’s lights out in about half an hour. Since dehydration brings it on you’ll need to drink fresh water as often as you can. Most dwellings have jugs where you can quench your thirst, and lakes, rivers, puddles and even swamps can be supped from. Doing so also fills your canteen, out of which you can get five additional drinks. Salt water, however, is a big no-no, for obvious reasons.
Other things that bring on the dreaded fever are fatigue from not sleeping or from running for too long, a near-drowning experience, a paw-swipe from the Creature and taking a tumble down a slope or hill, which, believe me, is incredibly easy to do, and until you get used to the momentum and sliding system and how to counteract them, you will be falling a LOT.
Just say “yes”
If you want an easier time of it, (and you will) then you had better make permanently improving your stats your first priority. First up is the Brain Emphasis Drug. This baby boosts your mental acuity, making creature encounters if not a breeze, then at least much easier, as long as you’re not like me and don’t notice your heartbeat until the bugger’s right on top of you. Now, when you’re in sneak mode the screen will swing round to face the direction of the beastie and an overlay will appear. This HUD upgrade will turn red if you aren’t well hidden, warning you that you will be seen as soon as it looks your way.
Other shots are the Endurance Emphasis Drug, which allows you to sprint further before reaching exhaustion, and the Muscle Emphasis Drug that increases your strength, letting you swim further and run faster. Hallelujah! When you successfully synthesize one of these drugs, Robert will automatically shoot up and you can enjoy your new-found prowess right away. Each stat can only be improved the once though, so don’t bother getting needle-happy.
I’m not lost, I’m in unfamiliar territory
What really makes this game different (and damn tough) is the innovative exploration system. You can forget about “you are here” pointers or fast-traveling. All you get when you start is a blank piece of paper and a compass. Yep, it’s up to you to make the map as you go along, and the name of the game here is “triangulation”. What you do is whip out your map and click on two “known” landmarks that you can see from where you’re standing, and presto, you’ll see where you are and the area around you will be filled in.
What if there aren’t any “known” landmarks in sight? Then you’re screwed. And probably lost. But worry not, “unknown” landmarks can become “known” if you click on them from two different spots at least ten degrees apart. Sounds complicated? It’s fairly simple once you get the hang of it, but to help out you’ll find some documents very early on that explain everything. With pictures. Ooooh. It’s also smart to pick up every scrap of paper that you came across on your travels, because some of them reveal portions of your map and others give plant locations, medicine combinations and provide a little insight into what went on before you arrived.
The darkness drops again
One hour of real time equates to about a day in-game, with the sun rising at seven AM and setting at nine PM. You’ll need to pay attention to this using your watch because if night falls when you’re not at a dwelling with a bed, you have a serious problem. When it gets dark, it gets really dark and you won’t be able to see a damn thing outside the puny illumination your lighter gives off. Even carrying a lit torch or burning stick doesn’t improve matters much; you can walk right past a building and not see it. Yes, I did this. I managed to make it to a lab building in time but labs don’t usually have beds you can use to skip ahead to morning. There’s nearly always another building close by with beds, water and save points, so I thought I’d go and look for it. Needless to say, I barely found my way back to the lab, and even then it was with the creature hot on my heels. The next half hour was spent cowering in the corner waiting for dawn, and, of course, I got a fever from lack of sleep. I step outside and what do I see? A bloody bunkhouse right next-door! Cue rage-quit.
What’s that coming over the hill…?
So you’re skipping along on your merry way through the woods when suddenly you hear your heart beating loudly in your chest. If you know what this means then it’s time to swear, panic and run for cover. If you don’t then you’re in for a harsh lesson, because that sound means the star of Miasmata has arrived. And by star I mean invincible monster whose only purpose in life seems to be to end yours. This large cat-like beast mostly spawns around certain hotspots, such as important plant locations, but can sometimes just pop in randomly for no reason, and the further you progress in the game, the more frequent and deadly your encounters.
Whether it’s day or night doesn’t seem to make a difference, nor does how much noise you’re making as you travel, although, when it appears you’ll want to be as quiet as a mouse if you want to survive the encounter. That’s where your Sneak key comes into play. Holding down this button makes you crouch down and move quietly, but moving over crackling twigs or rattling stones will still draw unwanted attention. The trick is to stay out of sight in some tall grass or a handy bush until it goes away, or, failing that, if you’re near a large body of water, to swim out of range until it de-spawns – provided you can last for that long without drowning.
You can’t fight and you can’t run, so don’t even try… it’ll end badly… believe me I know. If you’re within sight and you turn your back on it, it’ll chase and tackle you, and it can move a hell of a lot faster than you can. Throwing things like rocks and fruit at it does nothing more than piss it off, and slashing at it with a weapon is just as useless. There are a few ways you can trick it though. As well as not being able to swim, it seems unable to climb up steep slopes. Just make sure it’s not too steep for you or you’ll find yourself sliding or falling to your fanged, clawed death. It seems to be attracted to fire, and throwing a lit torch will have it bounding over to investigate, giving you time to find cover or risk making a break for it. Throwing a stone will have the same effect. Apparently you can also hide behind a large tree or rock and keep it between you and the creature as it circles, until it gets bored and runs off. This has never worked for me though, I just spent ages going round and round the damn tree until I got fed up, backed off and fell down a cliff, losing everything I was carrying in the process. Rage-quit right there.
If you do get spotted you’ll hear it roar as it comes after you. One swipe of a taloned paw will send you flying and give you a fever, while a second hit means it’s game over and back to your last save point. This can be quite frustrating when you’ve just discovered a new plant, mapped out fresh territory or travelled halfway across the island. Avoiding your furry friend is much easier if you can whip up a drug to boost your senses.
I love it when a plan comes together
The graphics, for the most part, are wonderful. The sky is incredibly realistic, ranging from overcast with occasional rain, to bright blue, scattered with clouds. The water is luscious and clear and the way the sunlight filters through the trees gives everything a sense of serene beauty that makes it easy to forget the lurking danger. Unfortunately, some of the lab stuff is a bit ropey and the dead bodies and accompanying blood pools look rather dodgy, but when you add sound into the mix those things hardly seem to matter. The sound effects couldn’t be better, with everything from crunching forest floors and stones rolling underfoot, to water sloshing as you swim.
The ambiance does its utmost to suck you in too, with birdsong, crickets, wind and the rolling sigh of the ocean. For the most part, these things are all you’ll hear, with no voice acting and music only playing occasionally, like when you reach a building or campsite. As much as this makes sense and really works, it’s a shame because the soundtrack is so blissful and relaxing. Fortunately it comes free with the game when you buy it from GOG.com, but if you pick it up from Steam all you get is a shot at some seriously evil achievements (finish in three days? Seriously?).
With all this game manages to accomplish and the level of quality on offer, it’s hard to believe that just two guys, brothers Joe and Bob Johnson, made this game. Fucking hats off to them, because even-though it’s been a long, and often brutal, journey, eliciting more than a few rage-quits, it’s an experience I’m glad I’ve had. Amazingly enough, I’m already thinking of starting over again, this time without using a map or the wiki to help me. Am I insane? A sadist? Or do I love rather than hate Miasmata?
Official Website: http://ionfx.com/product_pc_Miasmata.php
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