Miasma Chronicles is the latest turn-based tactics game from the makers of Mutant Year Zero. Sadly, the engrossing strategy isn’t matched by the storytelling…
How does a game manifest both as a sequel and as completely new IP? Call it the Heisenberg effect for franchise building: while Miasma Chronicles inconspicuously floats around the pop-cultural expanse, it registers like an original turn-based tactical RPG set in a dystopian future of environmental collapse and ruthlessly exploited company towns. But peer closely and it reveals itself as something else, too: the indisputable successor to 2018’s Mutant Year Zero, a title that ingeniously embellished XCOM’s dice-determined combat with a layer of preparatory reconnaissance and a more focused, character-driven narrative. The observation prompts a second question, a more poignant one for those – like myself – who enjoyed The Bearded Ladies’ debut upon release: how has this, with five years of hindsight on a highly specific blueprint, turned out worse?
Regarding the first line of inquiry, one can attempt an informed guess: the tabletop RPG on which Mutant Year Zero was based is not exactly a household name but it makes sense, nevertheless, that the Swedish developer would want to take full advantage of the winning formula they’d concocted while adapting it on their own, non-licensed setting. But the second question is much trickier. For a game that so faithfully reproduces the template introduced by its predecessor, it’s rather odd that Miasma Chronicles would feel so underwhelming. The impression is not simply a case of diminishing returns, either – though that certainly plays a role. It results from a lacklustre effort in an area on which both titles focus but only the earlier one shines: the writing.
A young mechanic called Elvis and his ebullient robot buddy, Diggs, inhabit a murky, mutant-infested corner of New America, the mining town known as Sedentary. Surrounded on all sides by swirling streams of miasma, a dark, volatile substance that corrupts the local fauna, envelops once-vibrant woodland, and ultimately displaces entire communities in its relentless expansion, it’s near impossible to survive outside these mining settlements. Not that life gets much easier inside the walls: in New America’s neo-feudalist dystopia every town has to pay a monthly tribute to the country’s overlords, the First Family, in exchange for rotting food and dubious medicine. Fail to meet the quota and the town is obliterated by the Family’s dreaded Collectors. The conditions are ripe for an uprising and our starring duo is about to lead it – after a whole lot of trekking through the post-apocalyptic wasteland to unlock Elvis’s hidden potential.
So far, so Fallout. But while the premise is innocuously generic, the dialogue alternates between barely-disguised exposition, empty platitudes, and unearned dramatic outbursts the combined sum of which sabotages any chance of identifying with the main characters. Moreover, their reactions frequently land as completely inane. Late in the game, the team interrogates Stubbs, a factory foreman, about a former worker who’s gone into hiding after his attempts at unionising were discovered. No matter that they’re openly seeking to collaborate with a known fugitive; or that Stubbs has been hired by the First Family to quash precisely such threats; or that he speaks with the kind of weaselly voice that’s a trademark of treacherous types everywhere. Your party is still utterly, utterly shocked when he betrays them.
Worse, nearly everyone you control is just so damn unlikeable. Elvis, perhaps as a result of the game so crudely aggrandising him in pursuit of a messianic narrative arc (“I am the resurrection and the life” he intones at some point, of course), comes off as an entitled brat. Bha Mahdi, the legendary heroine that may or may not be his mother, is quite obviously an authoritarian and a bully. And Jade, initially the most intriguing member of the group, transforms from brooding outsider to awestruck follower once Elvis’s true nature is revealed. Miasma Chronicles pays lip service to various leftist bullet points, from environmental concerns to unionisation, but the way it unquestioningly assumes certain hierarchies, the way it fawns over its chosen saviours, make such ideological posturing suspect. Whether they lead the revolt or not, these are absolutely not the people you’d want at the helm of New America once the dust settles.
At least when it drops the chatter, Miasma Chronicles’ core interactive loops – exploration and small-scale warfare – are as engrossing as you remember from Mutant Year Zero. This is a much larger world than its predecessor’s but just as richly packed with detail you’ll stumble upon either while scouting ahead for potential ambush spots, or actively looking for collectibles in the form of old-world memorabilia. The latter are described in the amusingly perplexed tones of a wasteland survivor unfamiliar with, for example, the potential uses of a QuickShot 2 vintage joystick, and provide substantial experience boosts so that seeking them out feels a meaningful – perhaps even wistful – endeavour, not drudgery. Environments are visually upgraded too, especially the desolate stretches of wilderness charred by the miasma, infernal, alien places in the heart of the American Southeast where the ground has gone black, trunks have turned into basalt columns, and swirling tentacles of the toxic substance pulsate and dissipate into the ether.
Combat is relatively unchanged, still gratifyingly split in two distinct phases. Prior to engaging with enemy groups it’s advisable to scout the surrounding area, deploy each squad member according to their unique strengths and weaknesses, and, after you’ve acquired some silenced weapons, pick off patrolling guards to improve your odds for the imminent skirmish. Once the bullets start flying, success is mostly a matter of positioning and having the right skill available for each situation.
Difficulty is significantly upped compared to Mutant Year Zero, with battles occasionally turning into scum-saving exercises in the more challenging Full Tactical mode and early in the game, before you’ve become conversant with the various deadly synergies at your disposal. But the accusation I’ve seen floating around that skirmishes are designed as single-solution puzzles is patently unfair: with such a wide range of multi-purpose effects, especially the miasma-based ones available to certain characters – from mind control to teleporting – the battlefield becomes a sandbox for creative mayhem. In fact, so crucial are these powers to the outcome of combat encounters that, because cooldowns do not reset outside of them, you’ll need to learn how to safely draw out the last stages of a fight just to have them replenished for the next one – a meta-tactical layer I quite enjoyed.
Miasma Chronicles works best, then, in the moments when it’s too busy to demand you pay its band of obnoxious rebels the attention and respect it presumes they’re due, letting the gorgeous environments tell the story of its broken world, allowing you tο project some personality onto its bland characters and rack your brain to overcome the next set of seemingly insurmountable odds. Unlike Mutant Year Zero’s loveable misfits, this is a bunch you’re grateful to have as allies in the struggle against the First Family but dread to see ascend to any position of power themselves. Even before dangling a set of narrative loose ends that all but scream “incoming sequel” in the final credits, Miasma Chronicles seems explicitly engineered to kickstart a franchise. If that comes to pass, I can only hope it lets me kick some of those people’s asses in the next instalment.
Sneaking around the vaguely defined borders of a battlefield, memorising patrol patterns and finding the right moment to dispatch a stray guard while nobody’s watching is not only an exceedingly useful habit for the skirmishes ahead (evening out numbers; revealing strategic positions) but, also, an almost zen-like activity in its own right.
Verdict: 62 %
Miasma Chronicles retains the engrossing tactical dilemmas of its predecessor but, due to lacklustre writing, loses a hefty chunk of its charm.