Miasma 2 is a game that confuses me in several ways, and the cover art starts things off perfectly. Is that Moby shooting at some blonde with weird knees walking out of a space club while a Gundam watches? Maybe mechs are into snuff films. It’s got his “Freedom” doing some “Uprising” if you know what I…wait, I think I’ve had this dream before. Yes…some time last year when I played ESP Games’ first title: a dystopian future strategy RPG that was, to put it mildly, extremely light on all of the words I just used to describe it. It was poorly written, about six stages long and mostly just an aggravating waste of potentially strong ideas. ESP was determined to keep reaching for that brass ring though and now we’ve got a sequel that continues where the first game left off in nearly every way: making some solid improvements but still not quite getting it.
What ultimately frustrates me even moreso than the first game is that I want to like it, and to ESP’s credit, I kind of do. There are some great ideas here, they’re just all tempered with a persistent nagging feeling that they’re short of what they could be.
Let’s talk about the good stuff first: the music continues to be excellent, thematically appropriate and well placed. By which I mean that it’s totally sweet when it sounds like someone is pumping a weaksauce remix of the Propellerheads’ “Spybreak.“ every time you rush into battle.
Though on that synthesized note: in many ways they’ve improved the combat from the first title, making strategy a more central and viable component by adding a myriad of potential options to your arsenal, unfortunately nearly all of them are poorly explained or simply not well implemented.
First off, one of my biggest annoyances from the first game: Dynamic Camouflage actually works in this iteration, but rather than improve the stealth elements or introduce missions that take full advantage of some of their game’s new features (assassinations and melee combat in particular) you’re given a series of scenarios in which sneaking around serves no point whatsoever. So there’s still very little reason to use it.
Assassinations are another potentially cool feature, particularly for a grid-based strategy game. Anyone who’s played a title in this vein knows back attacks are important. In Miasma 2 your characters can kill people in one shot if they haven’t been alerted to your presence. In theory, this is awesome and could really infuse the genre with some exciting new ways to play it. For example, utilizing some cunningly planned strategy taking advantage of simultaneous movement and attack in a high tension environment where you’re, oh say, escaping from a VI compound with no weapons.
In practice, you will never, ever use it beyond the tutorial mission.
So far we’re 0/2 on new things that work well. Ah, but they’re not done yet. Another major complaint I had with the original was the segments between missions: well, they’ve managed to both improve and ruin that particular experience. I loved the gorgeous upgrade screen from the first which displayed the characters lounging in their base/headquarters/server room/kitchenette while you flipped between each to change their stats. This has been replaced with a first-person run around through a dull, mostly empty warehouse to chat with your squadmates in order to flesh them out, get free upgrades and/or pursue some ham-handed “relationship” side story with the generic, vacuous member of your choosing.
When I say “ham-handed”, I mean, we’re talking a whole pig on each hand. It’s that bad. Really, all of the game’s dialogue is more stiff and wooden than Mitt Romney humping a tree. It isn’t as if the game world doesn’t have potential to be more fleshed out and interesting. The characters have room to grow into relatable figures, but sadly in the storytelling department nothing changes over the course of the story or in fact has changed at all since the first, including their clothes. Seriously, I would have taken a palette swap at least.
The warehouse is also where you upgrade squad members, which requires you to run, find them and click through a couple dialogue windows before upgrading can happen. Now, that’s fine, if annoying, but you’re also not told where you can upgrade yourself. It took me a couple missions to figure out you have to chat with the lockers to do so (yes, you read that right), which are hard to look at directly anyway because they are exploding with blindingly rapturous light-bloom. I’m down with the idea of the between-mission character building, but not at the expense of a more intelligent and convenient system. Let me upgrade my characters in the menu and then choose to talk to them.
On the subject of character upgrades: with only a handful of missions and your squad always decided by the story, it’s easy to run into the occasional roadblock. If you were to, I don’t know, neglect to upgrade the two “main” characters sufficiently and get stuck on a mission that requires they both survive against some pretty overwhelming odds, chances are you’re not willing to do what I did and start the game over because there’s no re-spec option. Is it possible to finish that mission with minimal upgrades? Maybe. I think it’s something of a testament to the game’s battle system that I would actually consider a third playthrough just to find out.
Which brings me to my final gameplay-related “beef” – Overwatch. This is simultaneously one of the greatest and most important features added to Miasma 2, one absolutely critical to success in battle and the most criminally overlooked. The only explanation you will get for it is a brief, single-screen mention in the tutorial if (and only if) you select the ability during that time. I spent almost my entire first and second playthrough having no idea what it did or even that it was in the game.
What it does, in essence, is tell your characters to automatically attack the first thing that comes in range. This changes everything. The value of cover/entrenched positions, AP usage, skill usage, movement, which characters are where (because they have different guns)…every single thing you consider when playing the game. You will probably never assassinate another character in the story, but you will use Overwatch in every battle. That is, if you are aware of it.
Now granted, there was a token effort there, but considering Overwatch is probably the most vital new ability you have, it strikes me as a pretty glaring oversight not to emphasize its importance.
In spite of all the negative things I have to say about it, I’d still urge people to give Miasma 2 a shot. It’s a fresh, fun and strategically interesting take on turn-based strategy. It’s a huge step up in most respects from the first game (which I did enjoy), enough so that I spent more time talking about the gameplay elements than poking fun at the soft targets the game is rife with: the Middle Management Antagonist You Only See Once, the Uncanny Valley of Empty Stares, movement glitches, survival mode crashes to Dashboard, balance issues, unclear vision/alert triggers, etc.
For some games, there’s enough here that I would recommend it as a must play title but Miasma feels once again like it falls just shy of what it could be. There’s just too many things that detract from the experience to make it anything more than mediocre. It’s like they’ve assembled all the right parts and just aren’t sure how they fit together.
Ultimately though, is Miasma 2 worth a dollar? Yes. Without a doubt. Unfortunately, what I want is for it to be worth more than that…and it just isn’t.