The fever doesn’t just lead to dizzy spells, though. It also attracts the creature. Yes, the island is home to an animal, one that stalks relentlessly, attacking nearly at random. Increased levels of fever seem to attract it, but there is no real way to predict when it will choose to strike. This means that you will nearly always be on edge while you play. The randomness of the attacks means you cannot outguess the designers on this one—like the experimental Slender, your assailant can come from anywhere at any time without warning. You turn around and there it is, barreling at you, or more often, just watching from the grass. The game gives you weapons, but they are of almost no use, since you cannot kill the creature, only deter it momentarily. Fire, in the form of torches you can carry, also wards off the creature's advances, but again, this isn’t particularly effective. Your best bet to avoid death (and thus restarting from your last save) is to run or hide.
The creature is actually more terrifying when you can’t see it. Once it makes its appearance the fear level drops due to uneven AI and a somewhat goofy-looking creature model. Its appearance is no secret—a fully exposed picture of the beast is featured in official game art. It resembles a kind of horned cat/bear hybrid, and while it certainly doesn’t look friendly, it’s far from the nightmare-fuel of Amnesia’s abominations. And though it’s undoubtedly heart-pounding when the creature is sniffing around two feet away while you huddle in the grass (hiding in tall vegetation is an effective tactic), it’s decidedly less terrifying watching the creature get stuck on a crag of rock and wander around in circles while you stand ten feet away. The pathfinding is hit-and-miss; it can be brutally single-minded, gliding over the unforgiving landscape towards you, or it can get caught up in the strangest places and all but cease to work. This kind of glitching isn’t terribly common, but I saw it a few times in my 11-hour playthrough. In general though, the creature’s mere presence in the game raises the tension throughout. I hesitate to call Miasmata a horror game, but it does maintain a level of genuine tension from start to finish. The time I was lost in the swamp with only my trusty lighter illuminating the murky water and I walked right into him... oh man, I jumped high out of my chair, screamed like a child and almost knocked over my cup, and it was fantastic.
Strangely, Miasmata can also be very soothing to play. Often this is a false sense of security as the creature may very well be nearby, but there are moments when you will allow yourself to feel relatively safe. Labs and huts are safe areas, and when you are fully hydrated and rested, in familiar territory near a hut you can easily sprint to, an already meditative game becomes downright relaxing. The lush island vegetation with sunlight streaming through the trees, the singing of birds and lapping of waves, brief snippets of ambient music; they all work in conjunction to lull you into a peaceful trance-like pace of exploration. And then the beast gets you.
In the early going, you’ll find hand-drawn maps of trails from your current location to the next outpost worth exploring. While the game never actually pens you in, the vast majority of players will take the hint and follow the trail, which lends the first few hours a pretty linear feel. Make your way to the next outpost, find the next scrap of map, and repeat. But before long you run out of maps. When I reached this point I was confused, absolutely certain that I had missed a map somewhere along the way, but eventually I realized that the game was finished leading me by the nose. I’m certain that many other players will run into the same confusion—there’s no overt hint that the style of play has changed significantly. The game actually improves once you’re cut loose, but it’s worth mentioning here so that you don’t do what I did and waste an hour combing over the same patch of land for a map that doesn’t exist.
Once the game opens up, the different elements of the plague cure can be constructed in any order. It’s not as though there’s no direction whatsoever, but the method you use for exploring the island is entirely up to you. Will you systematically work out a grid system and tackle the island square by square? Will you wander aimlessly until you find a trail to follow and hope it takes you to an outpost containing a map? Or will you stick to the coasts, mapping out the perimeter of the island before making your way into the unknown interior? All are viable approaches. Since there is no scripted plot to advance and no invisible walls or gameplay gates to keep you bounded into particular areas, you really can go wherever you please. Eventually you’re going to have to cover a good portion of the island, but how you go about it is up to you.
The size and scope of the game is remarkable for a two-man team, but the lack of resources available to bigger teams with larger budget is evident from the start. The graphics are inconsistent—the lighting is gorgeous and the foliage is far more dense and varied than in many jungle games, but textures are blurry and hide their tiling poorly, character models are minimalistic and strangely proportioned, and what few animations there are (mostly the creature and your hands) would look more at home in 1998 than 2012. None of this detracts much from the game, however—I found myself more immersed in Miasmata’s island than in any number of similar wilderness settings in games with multi-million dollar budgets, due in large part to small details: bugs crawling across the forest floor, rain drizzling through the jungle canopy, and birds fleeing from the trees as the beast bounds past, among others.
The soundtrack is sparse, consisting of soothing and ethereal ambient music that plays only over the title screen and in the vicinity of major outposts of the game. What’s there adds much to the atmosphere, but there isn’t much. The sound effects on the other hand are almost constant—the crunching of twigs underfoot, the rustling of leaves in the wind, the sloshing of the tide against an outcropping of rock. The island creates its own soundtrack that more than does the job.
For all the little details it gets right, the game does demonstrate a general lack of polish. Immediately upon launch I ran into a number of technical issues, mostly graphical. Flickering menus and textures, sudden loss of mouse control, and generally awful performance plagued my experience (pun intended). There was nothing game-breaking, but unfortunate annoyances were disappointingly common. My computer is far from top-of-the-line, but it’s hardly a slouch, yet despite pulling a solid 40 frames per second in another new jungle island release, Far Cry 3, I was lucky to hit 15 FPS in Miasmata, even on lower settings.
While the frame rate never improved, a quick trip to Google revealed that most of these issues are fixable, and to the developers’ credit, they have been very responsive to public complaints, working directly with their customers to solve issues and taking those experiences into account for a series of planned patches, including one specifically designed to improve performance. As of this writing, most of the issues remain unpatched, but there is every reason to believe that the Brothers Johnson intend to support their game for quite some time.
Miasmata is not an adventure game in the traditional sense. Indeed, there’s almost nothing traditional about it. It tries many new things, succeeding wildly at a few of them. It’s certainly not for everybody—if the idea of playing jungle botanist doesn’t sound at least a little intriguing, you’re going to want to look elsewhere. But for those of you with a well of patience, a strong stomach, and a green thumb, Miasmata is a rejuvenating, fresh slice of gaming. It’s immersive, mysterious, harsh, serene, terrifying, beautiful, and hideous all in one go.