Review: Miasma Chronicles provides a memorable tactical trek

It’s fair to say that Swedish developers The Bearded Ladies have found their niche. Miasma Chronicles is their third game, and also their third turn-based tactics game. At first glance, it seems overly similar to their 2018 debut Mutant Year Zero. Over time though, this odyssey through a ruined America shows its own uniqueness. It offers a similar style of tactical battles, but in a new framework that is both more accessible and more narratively interesting.

Once again, the setting is post-apocalyptic. Not so long ago, this America had solved its problems and was on a solidly utopian trajectory. All that changed with the emergence of miasma: a swirling, omnipresent scourge that warps matter, makes monsters of ordinary animals, and caused society to collapse. The main protagonist, Elvis, is abandoned by his mother in the desolate town of Sedentary. Miasma Chronicles is the story of his effort to find his mother, explain the nature of miasma, and possibly save what remains of the world.

The core gameplay remains similar to Mutant Year Zero. Elvis, his robot “brother” Diggs, and eventually a swappable third squad member explore the world in real time. Upon encountering enemies, the game switches to its familiar, two-action turn-based mode. This switch can be done deliberately if the player chooses to set up an ambush, or accidentally if they are detected. 

As before, The Bearded Ladies encourage stealthy ambushes with silenced weapons to cut enemy numbers. In the tough and uncompromising Mutant Year Zero, this was all but mandatory because full enemy squads were fearsomely dangerous. At least on standard difficulty, Miasma Chronicles is much more forgiving. Stealth is easier due to the addition of new distraction options, and going loud is far more survivable. Many players failed to reach the end of Mutant Year Zero because it was so ruthless; happily, that is less likely to be the case here.

Stealthy ambush mechanics in Miasma Chronicles

Jade joins the team with a silenced rifle that is invaluable in stealthy ambushes

Combat is the core of Miasma Chronicles and it does not disappoint. The two-action system recalls earlier games like XCOM 2 and Hard West II, and handles elements like cover, high ground, and overwatch in a similar way. There are a number of satisfying tricks to uncover, like having Diggs use a “knocker” grenade to push multiple foes out of cover and into Elvis’ line of sight. Various miasma powers also switch things up, such as the ability to throw enemies around or to summon a charmingly diligent mutant frog healer.

Enemy types are quite varied, and split into a number of distinct factions. While specific foes often fit archetypes familiar from other tactical games, the developers have combined them in interesting ways. Battling walking mutant trees in a forest has a very different feel to engaging a group of gun-toting robots in the miasma-ridden husk of an old gas station. There are a number of optional side missions, though it can feel that the rewards fail to justify the time and effort they require to complete. Hidden caches are more interesting, as they are often based around finding pass codes cleverly hidden in the environment.

The Bearded Ladies have expended much effort to ensure that players can craft their own style of play. Characters, weapons, and miasma powers can all be customised and these systems are streamlined and comprehensible. Notably, almost everything that can be done can be undone, which encourages experimentation. Diggs, for example, can serve as both a hyper-aggressive raider and as a defensive tank, within the same playthrough.

Miasma Chronicles has a much more detailed and intriguing world than the developers’ previous efforts. While ruined, this America is also quite lively, with more “civilised” locations and a larger cast of characters. Varied locations like shattered highways, an arcane temple, and a decrepit hospital each have their own stories to tell and secrets to unearth. It can feel, though, that the studio could have found a more interesting way to tell these stories – the campfire conversations, computer terminals, and journal entries are uninspired and lose their novelty quite quickly.

Elvis opens fire in Miasma Chronicles

Elvis is as formidable with a gun as he is with his miasma powers

Conversely, the big picture storytelling is executed well. While the core plot leans a little too heavily on overfamiliar tropes, the voice acting is of a high standard and the studio’s trademark sense of humour often shines through. There are numerous good jokes in Miasma Chronicles, often rooted in the characters’ dubious understanding of the pre-apocalypse world that died before they were born.

In recent years, turn-based tactics games have reached a new level of maturity and popularity. While these games have a tendency towards sometimes formulaic systems – due partly to the almost unavoidable influence of XCOM Miasma Chronicles is an example of the genre’s abiding appeal. The Bearded Ladies haven’t reinvented the wheel, but have significantly refined their approach and delivered another sometimes enthralling tactical experience.

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