Miasma Chronicles is a turn-based tactical stealth roleplaying game in the vein of XCOM but with a few big twists developed by the Bearded Ladies. It is a spiritual successor to their previously released Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden, from 2018. I played on PC through Steam, but it is also releasing on PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, and PC through the Epic Game Store on 23rd May 2023.
So is it full of bad air or as good as the movie Chronicle? Which I have yet to see. Let’s find out!
Spoiler Free Story Time
In Miasma Chronicles, you play as Elvis, a teenager with a glove of +10 techno-wizardry. A mysterious woman that vanished years ago raised you. Before she left, your “Mama” programmed a mining robot from your hometown as your brother to raise you. The last thing she told you was to break through a wall of weird black gunk to find her. That same gunk is swirling all around you, creating dangerous monsters and tearing apart the ruins of a golden age of sustainable (or so they thought) technological advancement they called “The Great Stability.” The gunk is the titular Miasma, and you’ll have to learn to use it to strike back against the “First Family” who rule the remnants of America with an iron fist.
The story has some twists and turns that I will not spoil, but I can’t say I found them terribly surprising. The writing is never terrible, but it’s bland. It also doesn’t help that the voice work is iffy. It’s also not awful, but we’ll discuss that further in the second to last section.
Despite the meh plot, the setting is the real star. You start in a gold mining shanty town in Kentucky and slowly explore the ruins of coffee shops, amusement parks, and skyscrapers littered with the shadows of the dead “originals” who worked there. You’ll fight Theevers (boring ‘ol people), Grabbers (Frog people), Ents (they aren’t called that, but that’s what they are), robots (not all of these needs a parenthetical, you know what robots are), Miasma monsters (like the girl from The Ring and that faceless monster from Spirited Away had kids), and other more challenging robots (I hate them).
The setting obviously takes a lot of inspiration from Fallout, like Mutant before it. Like in Fallout, you go from a nobody to having the world’s fate in your hands. Though unlike Fallout there are no multiple endings or branching paths here. Like the decaying remains of Gatorland, this is an amusement park, not a choose-your-own adventure.
Miasma Chronicles: Gameplay
The mechanics are similar to their previous game. You control a cozy (read small…three at max) squad as you travel around interconnected zones. Traveling in each zone is real-time and third-person; you can find loot, talk to people, and shop. Traveling between zones is basically a menu.
When you get near something that wants to kill you, you get an overlay that shows its visual range. If you sneak, that range gets smaller. You are free to engage these enemies however you wish. You can even ambush them to get the first shot. So long as you take out the enemy in the first round, and if your weapon is quiet enough, it won’t alert their friends either. Pair that with critical hits, and you can often take down some formidable enemies without letting them fire back.
Kill enough enemies and you level up, which grants you points to improve your party. They can be spent to unlock skills with significant effects, like applying fire and acid damage, buffing your chance for a critical hit, or stunning enemies. Each character has its own tree of unlockables (with some repeats).
That’s all the same in both games, but there are a few differences. In Mutant, the zones were for exploration and fighting. The towns were little more than menus. Here they are their own full zones and feel much more immersive. The zones in Miasma Chronicles are also significantly more extensive. They often have several encounters built into them, many optional in nature.
Then there’s the most prominent difference, the setting. Which brings us to our next section.
Setting. Or How Miasma Chronicles Kinda Made Me Go Hmmm…
Mutant is set in the world of a tabletop RPG of the same name. There is little to precisely locate where most of the game takes place, but it seems to be Scandinavian. So at least for me, any strangeness in the dialogue is easy to put down to translation issues. It also stars mutants that look like cartoon animals, so while the tone is apocalyptic, it’s also a bit more absurdist in nature.
Miasma Chronicles, on the other hand, is set in Kentucky. It stars a kid named Elvis, and he has a Southern accent that comes off a bit fake to me. I grew up near St. Louis, which is nearer Kentucky than you’d think. I’ve heard my share of Southern accents. It may not even be noticeable if you aren’t from anywhere near the American South. But Elvis is actually the least of the issues. Most people you meet are meant to have similar accents, and they could be better.
The worst, though, is the robots. Your brother and many of the other robots speak with not just a southern twang but in a decidedly AAVE-inspired way. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, except that most of the robots you meet in this game are fully sentient beings used to perform labor for others without pay. And when you set a game in the American South, that’s gonna have to mean something, right?
Only, I Wonder If It Does
For example, in one of the towns you visit, the robots have rebelled against the humans, and the game paints this as a dangerous place manipulated by the First Family. It later glosses over all this to show the robots and the humans joining forces to fight the Family. Still, by then, you’ve spent much of the game battling the robots as your main antagonists.
If this was set anywhere else, it would be questionable enough. But in a game that begins in a tiny gold mining town in Kentucky that are the good guys even as they exploit slave labor, it’s mystifying that people didn’t question these decisions somewhere along the line.
Then there’s the First Family. Coding the ultimate enemy as a corporation is all good in my book. Still, the only corporation (they won a war against all the others), Edezen Corp, is a green company with progressive values. There is a thread of the Originals “going too far” and being too addicted to “progress.” Perhaps the attempt here was to link corporations’ attempts to appear environmentally sound and culturally sensitive as crass attempts to exploit people, but there are less charitable interpretations.
But maybe none of that bothers you, and if so, fine, great even! I still played this game all the way through when I gave up relatively quickly on Mutant. So I must not have been too bothered. Or I felt obligated after being provided a preview code. Still, I had to bring this up because it did affect my enjoyment of the game. Although it didn’t ruin it, it did feel like a severe waste of an opportunity to do something exciting with the plot and the setting. Perhaps future games will dive into these themes and do something interesting with them. I hope that The Bearded Ladies get that chance.
Aside from two crashes to the desktop, I never had any issues progressing (though one was at the very end and made me have to repeat a very tough fight). However, they weren’t the only issue I had with the game.
The frame rate stuttering may have been my computer, and this is a turn-based game, so it wasn’t much of a problem. However, I saw a lot of enemies and allies getting stuck in the geometry of the levels. When in the exploration mode, your party members snag on pretty much anything. Actually, it’s often on nothing at all. Typically it was just janky looking, but it did make one enemy unable to attack me.
The music is solid but mostly forgettable. It does the job of setting the mood when needed but fades into the background for the most part. The sound design is excellent. The gunshots, the electrical jolts, the angry roar of a tree out for your blood, or a robot that landed explosively behind your lines not only put you in the moment and let you know what kind of attack you’re facing.
The vistas in the game look really good, as do the expressionistic stills that accompany the narration. The robots, too, are well-designed. Humans are less so. They don’t look bad, but the animations as they talk struck me as rudimentary. More than once, characters vanished from cutscenes completely. The second to last cutscene of the game was missing the main character. The camera panned around as if he were still there, and there was a blank space where his dialogue would have gone. All that was left was the villain monologuing to an empty room.
Miasma Chronicles: The Conclusioning.
So we have a rough game with fantastic turn-based combat with a unique twist. The setting is well-painted, but the smaller brushstrokes are messy. I love this game and am going back to finish all the side missions, but I have to dock it some points for failing to live up to its premise.
Thanks so much for reading! If you enjoyed this write-up, please check out my review of Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened! Totally different kind of game. No idea what the connection is there except I wrote it. Or if for some inexplicable reason, you want to check out something I didn’t write, you can check out this interview with Midnight Suns and XCOM Creative Director Jake Solomon. No stinger on that one. It’s just an excellent interview.
Note – a Steam code was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.