If you have something on your mind, you’ll have plenty of time to think about it in Miasmata. You’re on an apparently deserted island suffering from a plague (you, not the island), while the cure lies within the various flora which grows there. In your weakened state, you’re not going to be sprinting all over the place, and there is only one antagonist so combat is rare. So to enjoy it you must like slowly exploring a badly rendered world; the scratch-built graphics engine is fairly horrendous by modern standards. But a game’s atmosphere isn’t solely dependent on its graphical fidelity, and Miasmata achieves immersion despite its technological handicap by trying its hardest to ‘keep you in the game’. There’s no ‘HUD’, your watch is on your arm, and a key-press brings up a map, not in a separate screen, but held in your character’s hands. Things like that make a big difference.
There are two indications that this is an indie game, its £11 retail price on Steam, and the fact that only an independent developer would be bold enough to produce a game with this little action. Made by two brothers, Miasmata is a beneficiary of Steam’s ‘Greenlight’, where the community can vote for games they want to see distributed there. We voted for a game where you spend most of your time using a map and compass to explore an island and collect plants. They’re not even very complex, the map-making and drug-synthesising mechanics, and only borderline believable, but still a step above other games that feature them.
Since it’s an indie, you can expect things like bad textures, animations, and the fact that if you try to pick up a banana at night, you will inexplicably throw your light source irretrievably into a wall. Not good because night is pretty damn black in Miasmata, but at least if you find a bed you can fast-forward time till morning.
I don’t know why the promotional material for this game shows you The Creature. It would have scared the living daylights out of me if I’d thought this was a peaceful game, and then it jumped out at me midway through admiring a sunflower. Instead I was half-expecting it and only slightly panicked. I suppose that screenshots showing only trees and flowers wouldn’t generate as much sales, and the great gameplay the creature brings should be advertised. You start off very weak from your disease ( you can barely run or swim) so the creature is highly likely to kill you despite your attempts to run or fend it off with sticks and stones. As you play you learn how to avoid it, and get strong enough to run away if it sees you. It’s an excellent enemy (in concept at least), and the opposite of mainstream gaming whose men-in-suits remain convinced you won’t play unless you’re killing something every 10 seconds.
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However a slight bit more killing, in the form of hunting the various peaceful animals you find on the island, would have been a great addition! I’m sure the developers thought about it but didn’t have the time or money, so your character gets thirsty but never hungry for some reason. Anyway swinging an axe at a bunny should cause some damage I’ve always believed. Another thing you’ll notice soon after you start playing is that the protagonist, in his weakened state, doesn’t come to a dead stop when you want him too, especially on downhill slopes. This can lead to him tumbling head over heels with his carefully gathered bouquet of flowers flying in all directions. To avoid this you need caution in your movement in a way that you don’t in most FPS games, so consider whether you are the sort to be absorbed by something this slow. The story is subtly told over time, and you’re not going to have a lot of dialogue or cut-scenes to entertain you.
But I’ve got a lot on my mind, so this game came at a perfect time. It gives you plenty of opportunity to think, though it’s a bit saddening in its bleakness. In that way (and many others) you can compare it to Dear Esther – another first-person non-shooter. Or S.T.A.L.K.E.R. without the shooting. Hopefully like Dear Esther it will get a HD remake in a more powerful engine, but even as it is I have to recommend it. There are very few first-person games based completely on exploring, and none that feature survival on a desert island. So if you want to feel a bit like Robinson Crusoe you’re in luck, especially if you aren’t interested in mainstream games that signpost everything and treat you like an idiot.