While looking for new survival horror games on Steam, I stumbled onto a very intriguing title: Miasmata. During my holiday break from work, I decided to boot up the game and see if it scratched my survival horror itch.
It didn't, on account of not actually being a survival horror game. But what I found instead was an equally interesting premise that immediately caught my attention and piqued my curiosity.
Curing yourself with science, water, and sleep!
The Johnson brothers kept this game about as simple as it could possibly be (perhaps to its detriment). They had a core concept, and they stuck to it. As such, Miasmata is a very novel game. It is probably the only game that I've ever played that is solely about scientific research.
The end goal is to cure a disease that the character has contracted and then escape the island. This disease acts as the central challenge to the game: you have to periodically medicate yourself in order to control the symptoms, but all medications must be derived from the local flora. Failure to do so can slow you down, blur your vision, and eventually kill you. A sheer majority of the game, thus, consists of wandering around the island collecting samples of plants, and then returning them to the nearest laboratory to examine them and use them to concoct various potions. In addition to medicines, you can also create potions to enhance your physical strength and perception. Doing so will allow you to run and swim further, and allow you to always know your location on the map (respectively).
Stand back! I'm about to do SCIENCE!
Unfortunately, the process of analyzing the specimens is automated (via a skip-able cutscene). You don't actually have to do anything in order to figure out what the plant's effects are going to be, and no actual scientific knowledge is required by the player. Each plant also only has one effect, so the potion-making mechanic (which is the core of the game) is pretty shallow.
The effects of each plant will be noted in your journal, which is one of the best journal features of any game that I've ever played. It has a handy status page that includes pockets for storing your medicines, as well as holding your water flask. It also shows your objectives and has tabs to collected notes, your research results, and the map. The journal is also populated with hyperlinks that take you to the journal page with the relevant information. For example, if you find a note with ingredients for an objective drug, the status page will add a hyperlink to that note underneath the objective. It's every bit the journal that Silent Hill: Downpour wanted to have!
As you explore, you'll also find camps left behind by the deceased research team. These camps can contain notes that can reveal bits of the game's intriguing backstory, provide recipes for various potions, or point you in the direction of key plant specimens. The camps also act as safe places for you to restock your supplies (including water), rest, and save your progress.
Keeping yourself hydrated and rested is important, as failure to do so can aggravate the symptoms of your illness and potentially kill you. Unfortunately, the feedback for this isn't terribly great. You'll get a notification when you're thirsty, but the game doesn't bother to tell you that you're tired. Instead, your health just starts rapidly deteriorating for no apparent reason. It took me a while to figure out that it was due to a lack of sleep.
Combat mechanics are present,
but they don't have any affect.
A curious omission is that you don't have to eat. The game even includes various weapons scattered around the island, and there is an attack and throw command. But you can't attack the hostile panther-like creature that occasionally appears to hunt you, nor can you hunt and kill any of the game's various wildlife (beetles, squirrels, birds, and so forth). So you can only run and hide from the creature, and you only collect plants, which don't need to be attacked in order for specimens to be collected. So why are the weapons and attack mechanic even in the game?
Exploring with geometry
Probably the second most significant mechanic is the map triangulation feature. Instead of revealing the map passively as you walk through it, the player must actively identify the location of landmarks in relation to one another. As such, the map is populated with primitive statues similar to Polynesian Moai, as well as temple ruins and the research camps themselves.
In order to reveal a part of the map, you must bring up the map and then click on two visible landmarks whose location you have already identified in order to draw a line to them. The point of intersection of the line becomes the player's location, and the region surrounding the player becomes revealed on the map. The map is pre-seeded with a couple landmarks, and you can discover notes at some of the camps that will reveal small sections of the map, including the landmarks that you will need to explore deeper into those regions.
The map must be revealed by actively identifying the location of landmarks in relation to one another.
In addition to identifying your location based on two known landmarks, you can also triangulate the position of unknown landmarks based on the location of known landmarks and yourself. Once you've identified your location based on two known landmarks, you can click on a third visible landmark in order to draw a line to it. If you spot that same landmark from a different vantage point, you can repeat that process in order to draw a second line to the unknown landmark and identify its location based on the point where the lines intersect.
The compass can help you navigate if you
lose track of your position on the map.
It's a surprisingly addictive feature, since it kept me constantly scanning the forests, jungles, mountains, and beaches of the island for new landmarks.
It's also a mechanic that is vital to your success! Neglecting to stop and reveal more of the map and locate new landmarks can leave you hopelessly lost. Not being able to find your way back to a camp in order to craft medicines to treat your disease will eventually get you killed. Saving the game while lost in the woods without any medicine can even put you in an futile situation that can force you to restart the game.
Inventory limitations is also a critical challenge. You can only hold three specimens in your hand at any given time, and the laboratories have a specimen tray that can only store six specimens. Thus, you have to constantly return to a lab in order to create tonics, and you'll have to store critical specimens for later. The specimen tray acts as a "magic box", such that every laboratory on the island will give you access to the same inventory, so you don't have to hike across the map to retrieve a specimen that you kept in a particular camp.
Unfortunately, this novel and interesting conceptual game is severely betrayed by control and technical issues that make its indie nature and lack of true quality assurance painfully apparent.
Attempting to descend cliffs will often result in the character falling and tumbling. He'll also drop any collected items if this happens and will often leave him with a fever that will have to be alleviated with medicine. The character also can't stop and turn on a dime, as his movement is affected by inertia and momentum. He'll skid and slide if you attempt to make a sudden stop or sharp turn while running, and he'll gradually pick up speed as he goes downhill. These actions can often result in him losing his footing and tumbling.
The character loses his footing far too easily, which leads to a lot of
frustrating tumbling around and dropping collected specimens.
These nuances of the movement controls are somewhat realistic and forces the player to be careful when exploring - especially around cliffs. This turns simply moving around the environment into a painful chore, as the character trips and falls, or slides off of cliffs far too easily. He also gets stuck on pieces of the environment and will unrealistically bounce off of some obstacles. I also had issues with the character not being able to perform simple tasks such as climbing stairs.
It sometimes felt as though the character is on wheels rather than legs. I can understand that the developers probably felt that navigation needed to have some challenge to it, since that's practically the whole game, but it gets really frustrating and tedious.
Technical bugs betray the game's indie nature
I'd be willing to overlook the annoying character controls if the game also weren't full of technical issues and other weird design flaws.
Alt-tabbing causes the game to crash...
The most annoying technical issues was alt-tabbing out of the game caused it to get locked in a loading screen and crash. This happened every time! Be sure to log out of Facebook, G-chat, Skype, or any other IM programs so that you aren't tempted to alt-tab out of the game and respond to messages. Applications that take focus off the game (such as software updaters, anti-malware, and so on) can also crash the game if they pop up during play.
Using shift-tab to open the Steam overlay also caused game freezes every now and then, but this was pretty rare. I think it only happened when I received an IM from a Steam friend. So you may want to play in offline mode in order to avoid this. The game also didn't award me one of my achievements for creating one of the stimulant potions.
There's also some in-game bugs. The most prominent bug is that opening up the map and closing it before the player location indicator appears, it will cause the game to stop recognizing mouse movements unless you re-open the map and wait for the animation to complete.
There's also some strange elements of the game's design. I already mentioned that there are combat controls even though you can't actually attack anything. There are also references to plant combinations and medicines that don't actually exist in the game. Perhaps this content was planned but then removed?
The game also became virtually unplayable for me when night time sets. The screen can get pitch black unless there is moonlight, and even then visibility is barely above zero. You can carry a torch or light twigs on fire in order to provide light, but these didn't seem to work when the journal, map, or compass are activated. I'm not sure if this was by design or a glitch, since there was exactly one time in which my torch did illuminate my compass, journal, and map during night.
[LEFT] Twilight can hit very suddenly, leaving you with little time to find a camp or source of light.
[RIGHT] Exactly one time the torch worked with my compass, journal, or map. Every other time, it was pitch black.
The nighttime issues are exacerbated by the fact that darkness hits very suddenly. This leaves the player with very little time to find a camp to rest at or a torch to illuminate your surroundings. Fortunately, you can always pick up branches off the ground and light them on fire to provide a temporary torch. But unless I knew exactly where I was going, this didn't help, since I couldn't use my map or compass.
In my first attempt at the game, I actually did get lost at night and couldn't use my map or compass. I had to scrap that game and start over because I couldn't find my way back to a camp and kept dying from lack of medicine.
Restarting also forced me to sit through the prologue narration again, since this cutscene can't be skipped. So in my second playthrough, I didn't make the same mistake twice, and I rarely went out after dark.
The map is also littered with small islands that serve no purpose. Some of them have landmarks that can help you navigate, but many do not. With the exception of two late-game island visits, these islands are also completely devoid (in my experience) of anything useful. They rarely, if ever, have any specimens on them or camps. This leaves the player with no reason to ever want to upgrade your swimming ability to explore these islands. So why are they in the game?
Islands are scattered around the island, but none of them ever have anything valuable on them,
so there's no point in upgrading your swim ability to explore them.
Lastly, despite, the free-roaming nature of the game and emphasis on exploration, there is no way to place waypoints or manually mark important locations on the map. So if you find a valuable plant specimen, you can't label its location on the map so you can come back later, nor can you mark your planned destination on the map. So if you reload after not playing for a while, it is entirely likely that you will have forgotten where you're supposed to be going.
A novel concept that is rough around the edges
Miasmata is also a surprisingly long game. The island map is fairly large, and it takes a while to explore. There's several distinct biomes, so the landscape does vary from woody forests, to thick jungles, to sandy deserts, and even a bamboo grove. Unfortunately, the game starts to drag a bit in the last act. By this time, you've probably collected and examined most of the plants and rarely come across anything new or interesting. The creature becomes less and less threatening, and is eventually reduced to a minor inconvenience. And the nagging control issues also really dragged down the experience for me, since the boredom was supplemented by frustration as the game dragged on.
The creature adds a very small horror element of the game, but this is not a "survival horror" game. There is a minimalistic story here that is told almost exclusively through the player's exploration of the game world, and the creature does play an important part of this story. But much like Among the Sleep's monster, the creature in Miasmata isn't persistent enough to play a significant role in the actual gameplay. So any fear that it may induce is minimal. The emphasis, thus, is almost exclusively on survival and the sense of adventure (traveling to a new place and discovering new things). As someone who cares deeply about science and discovery, this game was very refreshing and engaging for me, despite its nagging technical and design issues.
Yes, there's a creature ([LEFT]), but it's incidental. This is not "survival horror"!
This is almost exclusively an adventure game about exploring ([RIGHT]).
I highly recommend that anyone with a similar passion for science, discovery, and adventure give Miasmata a try. It is very rough around the edges, but its dedication to its novel niche concept makes it worthwhile. It's a game that is geared towards a specific audience, and that audience will likely love the game. For anyone else, it could be a passable diversion, but you might find it too dull and boring to play to completion.