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Miasma Chronicles preview: a puzzle worth solving

The Bearded Ladies’ new tactical combat RPG will be a treat for genre fans and newcomers alike
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Puzzles can be a fun way to spend your time and even though there is only a single way to solve them, finishing one makes you feel like you’ve accomplished something. But what if there were a few more ways of doing so? What if the puzzle fought back and boiled you alive in a rusty old bathtub while talking crap about you if you failed at solving it? And what if the puzzle got smarter and more powerful, but you also got new pieces to work with as time goes by? Wouldn’t solving a puzzle like that feel very satisfying indeed?

Satisfaction like that is what I felt while playing Miasma Chronicles, the upcoming tactical combat RPG developed by The Bearded Ladies and published by 505 Games, during a recent hands-on preview event they hosted at their home base in Sweden.

Set in a post-apocalyptic version of the United States, Miasma Chronicles is an original IP and the latest refinement of the gameplay formula that conquered the hearts of genre fans with Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden. You control a small group of characters, each with their own personalities and abilities, exploring lovingly hand-crafted maps in search of anything that might be of use: new weapons, additional mods to make them more lethal, and consumables to assist in combat. Finding rare “treasures” like a limited-edition coke bottle nets you lots of XP, while scraps of plastic add to your always overstretched currency reserves.

Exploration is one of the core pillars of Miasma Chronicles – and not just because of loot and hidden secrets. It’s one of those puzzle pieces I mentioned above.

Miasma Chronicles Elvis stares at a wasteland.

You can revisit the areas of Miasma Chronicles any time to look for secrets – they're well hidden.

Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden was such a hit with hardcore fans of the turn-based tactical combat fanbase in part because it was devilishly difficult. The Bearded Ladies have mellowed out a bit over the years, though, and don’t wish to exclude players based on their skill anymore. That’s why Miasma Chronicles has a few difficulty options with “Narrative” enabling a relaxed playthrough focusing on the game’s story, and “Alpha Editor” being the mode for masochists who enjoyed every minute of Mutant. I don’t enjoy pain that much, so I tested the game on “Challenging”, one step below “Alpha Editor”. What can I say? The name is fitting.

I died many cruel and brutal – and sometimes stupid – deaths, and every single one made me like the game even more, because they were a learning experience.

Which brings me back to exploration: Scouting the area carefully, taking account of the terrain, enemy patrol routes, advantageous features like explosive barrels, and cover opportunities is vitally important to your success in combat. Half the battle is won in the setup, in the plan you forge before the first bullet is fired. There is a bit of Hitman DNA in there, which isn’t a surprise given the biography of some of the developers.

You can sneak around with your characters, avoiding the line of sight of enemies and hiding in bushes to infiltrate their lines. Silenced weapons and a few quiet abilities allow you to take down some isolated adversaries without alerting the rest. Some maps will offer opportunities to lure opponents away from the main force by activating things like loudspeakers. You can throw glass bottles on the ground as well to make someone come and investigate the noise. It’s all about stacking the deck in your favor and feels really rewarding.

Miasma Chronicles characters sneaking through a factory.

There are full stealth levels in Miasma Chronicles, but you mostly sneak around to set up a fight.

That’s why my deaths didn’t bother me. They made me rethink my approach, made me scout the area a bit more carefully, and take stock of my consumables. I adapted to survive – to solve the puzzle that is every combat encounter in Miasma Chronicles.

A cool way in which the developers support this approach is the way skills work. Each character has a pool of sixteen skills grouped into four squares or four. Skills in each separate square build on each other and require more points to unlock the deeper you go – but you can freely refund a skill whenever you wish. Not only does that mean you don’t have to save up skill points, letting them waste away as you struggle in combat while waiting to get enough for the high-level ability you want, you can adapt your characters’ kits to any situation you may encounter.

Having trouble with some mutated trees? Get some abilities with Fire-type damage. These enemies rush you as a swarm? Enable the classic Overwatch ability, combine that with a nice position on the map to funnel them into, and enjoy the carnage. It’s a freeing system that rewards experimenting and information gathering. Hovering over enemies tells you a lot about their abilities and weaknesses, while an expandable screen on the bottom right allows you to get detailed information on how your own hit chances and damage numbers come about in any given position.

Miasma Chronicles tree enemies.

These mutated trees and their saplings gave me a hard time in the preview sessions.

Add to that the fact that all the different weapons in the game have two slots for mods that change how they play and that some characters have access to game-changing Miasma powers, which can be modified as well, and suddenly you’ve got a massive amount of options to work with, as they open a wide variety of interactions when used together.

All of that ensures that you can solve every encounter in several different ways. You’re not locked into a certain playstyle at all – in fact, the developers keep you on your toes by putting you up against adversaries from time to time that are designed to counter styles they’ve found are prevalent in certain stages of the game.

I always found that understanding why I’m losing a battle helps reduce frustration, and Miasma Chronicles is providing all the tools to get that understanding and find a better way. Finally cracking those puzzles, seeing those last enemies explode in a spray of bullets or succumb to damage-over-time effects, simply feels amazing.

Miasma Chronicles characters sneaking up on enemies.

Miasma Chronicles gives players a lot of freedom on how to solve encounters and how much of a challenge they want.

Miasma Chronicles also offers a choice between the traditional genre experience, which is to get completely screwed over by a missed shot that had a 97% hit chance, or a simplified mode that rounds the RNG up and down. Instead of those 97% you get a guaranteed hit, but a 59% becomes a 50% hit chance – and whatever you choose will affect your enemies as well, of course. That means that you can deeply customize the kind of tactical experience you want, making the game a lot more accessible than Mutant ever was without taking away any of the complexity and punishment the hardcore audience is looking for.

The Bearded Ladies are trusting their players – old and new – to know what kind of experience is most fun for them.

While the developers want to tell a light-hearted adventure story, the world this narrative is set in is pretty dark – it’s a dystopian hellhole ruled by a ruthless group called the First Family, ravaged by a mysterious force known as the Miasma, which is mutating animal and plant life. Playing as Elvis and his big robot brother Diggs, you're trying to power up a mysterious glove left behind by someone Elvis thinks of as his mother, a legendary warrior. The dialog between Elvis and Diggs is on point. They share a real brotherly dynamic that’s great to listen to and have interesting personalities. Over the course of the game, different companions join the journey, adding new perspectives and drive to the crew, revealing twists to what seems like a fairly stereotypical story right at the start.

The world feels lived-in – it’s gritty and authentic with a bit of a Firefly vibe as the Wild West meets technology. The hub town Sedentary’s mayor is literally a Futurama-style talking head in a jar who chain-smokes cigars.

Miasma Chronicles robot town.

You can explore the backstory of Miasma Chronicles' America in lore drops around the world.

It’s a fine line to walk for the developers as they cross from a dark and serious tone over to some more humorous stuff consistently. Personally, I enjoy dark humor and I think jokes are a great way for people to cope with serious situations, so I think they struck a fine balance for the parts I’ve seen – but I can see some people being caught off-guard and somewhat irritated by some of the sillier voice lines enemies use during fights or the themes of some side quests, for example, perceiving them as being disjointed from the narrative’s overall tone.

The preview I played certainly left me with an urge to explore this world and its underlying themes a lot more – the United States presented in the game is a cautionary tale about what happens when you rely too heavily on corporations and eccentric billionaires to fix your problems for you, so the developers chose a potential timeline of our history that could not be more relevant right now.

Miasma Chronicles is dressed to impress as well, sporting a striking aesthetic with little Miasma parts flying through the air, calcifying life around them and sucking out all the color nearby. There are some great visual designs among the game’s opponents, be it the tribal mutated frogs or the powerful battle robots the First Family commands, which have a pharaonic look to them. As you journey through the world, your deeds start to make themselves known – enemies will talk about you as you listen from the shadows, which is a great bit of immersion.

The game build I got to play was quite polished, though obviously not perfect yet – little lags and weird waiting times during combat were noticeable, the sound randomly went out once, and one of my characters got stuck inside some chairs at one point.

Players who loved Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden will enjoy Miasma Chronicles as well and players who loved the idea of it, but couldn’t get past the difficulty barrier, will be happy to hear that Miasma Chronicles is welcoming them with open arms.

Miasma Chronicles launches on May 23, 2023, for PC, PS5, and Xbox Series X|S.

Miasma Chronicles artwork.

Where to buy Miasma Chronicles