If the mutant ducks, pigs and other animals of Mutant Year Zero weren’t your thing – something I’ve heard a few times when chatting about this upcoming game over the last fortnight – then Miasma Chronicles could be much more your style. It still takes place in a post apocalyptic world, there’s still weird mutant creatures to battle, but your leads are human and robotic. The Bearded Ladies has crafted a whole new setting for this game, instead of searching through 80s board games and tabletop RPGs for a license.
At the heart of this new adventure are two brothers (in a way) who’ve been left to fend for themselves in a world beset by Miasma, a mysterious blight that has torn across North America, giving rise to a new totalitarian government. Elvis is the main protagonist here, having been left as a baby in the mining town of Sedentary, but his older ‘brother’, the sentient robot Diggs was there to look after and care for him growing up. Their mother (who built Diggs, so probably counts as his mum) left just one thing behind before she set off to try and explore the nearby Miasma barrier: a glove.
The game opens with a grown up Elvis trying to use this glove to break through and control the Miasma, accompanied by Diggs. It doesn’t go quite to plan and the glove needs some repairs having overloaded itself somehow, and worse, as they head back to town, they’re attacked by mutant frogs!
Miasma Chronicles builds on the foundations of Mutant Year Zero, blending together free movement through the world environments, stealth and XCOM-like turn-based combat – it certainly feels more akin to XCOM than traditional tactical RPGs. It takes a streamlined approach in each regard.
Each turn gives you two action points per character, but as soon as you attack, that’s the end of that character’s go. As you’d expect, you’ll want to move between cover, flank the enemy, and blast away with your gun or use throwables like grenades to get the job done. There’s critical shots to cross your fingers for, and the chance that you might miss a shot, as well as a powered up Enraged mode that builds as your characters take damage or miss shots, but it’s all intuitive and straightforward, while giving plenty of flexibility.
A big part of that flexibility will come from the potential to open a fight with stealth. As you approach a bunch of idling enemies up ahead, you move as a party with you lead character followed by the others. At any time you can tap to enter Ambush mode, switching to a square grid and then getting your team into position now that they can all be moved individually. You’ll clearly see during this where the danger points are for getting spotted, but thankfully the pathfinding is such that you don’t need to micromanage. Then it’s time to spring the surprise and get stuck into the fight.
The post-apocalyptic world that The Bearded Ladies has created is a rather intriguing one. Getting back to Sedentary – an appropriate name for a sleepy mining town if ever i heard one – Elvis and Diggs will be going back and forth between the important characters in this slightly ramshackle locale. First they need to inform the Mayor of the weird monsters they just fought, who then sends you off on a mission to collect something from Bertha’s Store, except she doesn’t feel like trading with you over a previous slight – it doesn’t matter how much Plastic you have, the recyclable rubbish being the main currency in this world. That all sends you off to the ruins of an alligator-themed amusement park, Gator Zone to find the MacGuffin you need at that time.
But let’s go back to the Mayor for a second, who might just be my favourite character this side of Richard Nixon’s head in a jar from Futurama. That’s because he too is a head preserved in a big jar! Also, his name is Mayor J Mason, which is an excellent name for head in a jar, he’s got a robot body and can smoke cigars thanks to a special hole. This might be one of the best video game characters ever designed.
Oh, and the fourth or fifth best thing about him? He’ll join your party as you adventure onward, alongside another mysterious character named Jade. As you’d expect, there’s RPG-style levelling up for the characters, so their combat abilities will improve with things like being able to sprint and shoot with a single turn. Different character builds could take Diggs down a more tank-y role in combat as well, and you might have some decisions to make since you can only take three into combat with you.
Since Mutant Year Zero, The Bearded Ladies have sought to refine their particular gameplay blend even further, with some nice quality of life points to keep it accessible. There’s returning niceties like being able to easily fast travel around the world – great for when you just want to deliver that fetch quest already – and there’s also things like automatically healing up after combat, though not on hard difficulty. New for Miasma Chronicle, you now have a shared backpack inventory between the party, aiming to cut down on the micromanagement of gear and usable items.
While we barely got to scratch the surface of Miasma Chronicles through the short hands on time we had from the start of the game, it’s clear that The Bearded Ladies are building on the strengths of their previous game. They’ve taken a step away from the wilder setting of Mutant Year Zero, and in doing so, Miasma Chronicles could easily appeal to a broader audience when it comes out in 2023.