After five years, we’re finally getting Miasma Chronicles, a spiritual successor to 2018’s Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden, which I like to describe as “that X-COM game with a pig and a duck.” Developer The Bearded Ladies took a step to the side with the 2020 release of Corruption 2029, an Epic Games Store exclusive that kept the solid combat system but lacked the personality of Mutant Year Zero. Since then, they have refocused their efforts, and have finally shown off a beta build of Miasma Chronicles at GDC 2023 that I was lucky enough to get my hands on. And so far, it has the spunk and gumption that I’m looking for.
Through the muck and the mire
In what could be a nod to Fullmetal Alchemist, Miasma Chronicles puts you in the shoes of Elvis, a teenage mechanic with a rare high-tech glove, and his saucy, enterprising robot older brother, Diggs. A primal, almost supernatural force called “Miasma” has turned America into a post-apocalyptic wasteland, with the black, flux-like substance twisting and turning the heartland into a mutated version of itself. When Elvis was a baby, his mother left him in the Kentucky mining town of Sedentary, but bequeathed the glove to him that has the power to control the Miasma. This strange piece of technology ultimately has the power to shape the future of America, but all Elvis really wants is to find his biological family.
From alpha gameplay footage that the developers have already released (I hope they clear up the facial animations), it’s clear that Elvis doesn’t fully understand how to use the glove early on in his journey. He attempts, for the thirty-seventh time, to break through a mass of Miasma that blocks him from finding his mother on the other side, but to no avail. Discouraged, Elvis and Diggs shuffle their way back to Sedentary, looting a few places for plastic and other crafting materials, when they come upon a hostile group of mutant frogs that kill a family they know in town.
This sets off a tutorial mission that goes through the basic systems for movement, action points, and cover that anyone used to tactical RPGs will understand. It also sends our pair of heroes down an adventure where they are ordered by Mayor Mason, who is just a head in a jar with robot spider legs, to protect Sedentary by finding new allies and locating a new power core for the glove. The developers also revealed that mining towns like Sedentary have deals with a company called First Family of America, which enforces contracts and settles debts by sending high-level Collectors to do their dirty work. So it may become a larger threat later in the story.
For the GDC 2023 demo, which started about a quarter into the game, the developers decided to highlight party formation, inventory management, and the intricacies of the combat system. Much of it all compares well to X-COM and Wasteland 3, except that the party members are fleshed-out characters instead of custom characters you create from scratch. A full squad is relatively small, about three most of the time, which means that every move you make matters a lot. This time around, Elvis and Diggs were joined by Jade, a sharpshooting gun-for-hire, who the devs had turned into a sniper.
During exploration on the field, the party can roam freely, investigating objects and collecting materials to craft and upgrade their equipment. Enemies have a clear cone of vision indicated by yellow squares on the map, so you can avoid engagements if you wish. Most of the time, it’s best for the party to sneak around in an attempt to get the jump on enemies, which in my case was a large group of those humanoid frogs called Grabbers and mutant trees called Whisperers. When I had the right angle on a straggler, I was able to pick them off one by one using Jade. But it was only a matter of time, since most ranged attacks have a percentage chance to go wide, before I missed a shot and started combat immediately.
Combat works more or less in the typical grid-based tactical RPG. Hiding behind partial or full cover is important unless you want to be aggressive. Every character has a certain amount of action points to move and attack, with critical hits adding an extra action point for cool combo chains. If you want to play defensively, you can set characters to guard a particular area in overwatch. Each character also has a rage meter that works like a limit break where they can use it to automatically get a crit.
Each character has different abilities and a separate skill tree, with Elvis able to fabricate items like barrels using his glove and Diggs able to tackle and provoke enemies as the tank of the group. Taking this into consideration, I used Diggs to tackle a Grabber from a ledge, causing it to fall to its death, and then flung a firebomb in the direction of some saplings so that a chokepoint was covered in flame. I then kept up the pressure by sniping foes with Jade and continuing to bombard the area with Elvis, until everything was burnt to a crisp. Ah, the sweet smell of victory.
Miasma Chronicles is set to release on May 23, 2023 on PS5, Xbox Series X|S, and PC via Steam and Epic Games Store. The developers say that the main story will last about 20 hours, while exploring everything will take about 40 hours. A physical version of the game in select regions is planned sometime in June 2023.
This preview is based on a hands-on PC demo of a beta build provided by the publisher at GDC 2023.