At one point in Miasma Chronicles, one of the bad guys yells: ‘Let loose the frogs of war!’
He’s a big bad mutant frog guy, you see, leading a rough-and-ready band of slightly smaller, slightly less bad mutant frog guys. He enjoys terrorising the last remaining humans of the post-apocalypse and mangling Shakespearean quotes. He delivers his rousing battle cry from the rickety summit of a not-exactly intimidating makeshift fort before his goons scramble for cover and the fight begins.
Miasma Chronicles is a series of tightly-constructed, turn-based tactical combat encounters held together by a rudimentary RPG structure and a goofy, eye-rolling sense of humour. Swedish studio The Bearded Ladies has made three of these now.
First, there was the excellent Mutant Year Zero: Road To Eden in 2018, a debut that refreshed the XCOM brand of tactics with a pre-combat stealth phase that rewarded patience, and a satirical take on the post-apocalypse that avoided cliches, thanks in large part to the dry wit of its main characters. The studio followed it up with Corruption 2029, a slapdash reworking that tweaked the same combat engine to reasonable effect, but stripped out any shred of personality from its world.
Miasma Chronicles again demonstrates The Bearded Ladies know how to design tactically interesting combat scenarios. Yet in its clumsy attempts at world-building, it does little to refute the idea that Mutant Year Zero was something of a fluke.
It’s frustrating, because there’s so much to appreciate here. The combat is really good. Maps are explored in real-time as you lead a small squad of characters sneaking between cover points and avoiding the view of enemies. Scouting an area is essential to assess what you’re about to go up against. You set an ambush to kickstart the turn-based combat. Lone enemies whose patrol routes separate them from the group can be picked off with silenced weapons, with the action returning to real-time if you’ve remained undetected. Enemies can be distracted to isolate them – almost toyed with in a way – as your squad pulls their strings from the shadows.
I love the way you’re rewarded for paying attention, taking your time, and using guerrilla tactics to thin the horde and tip the odds in your favour, rather than rushing into an open firefight where you’re bound to be outnumbered and outgunned.
Once you’ve been spotted, the combat continues to shine. The building blocks are familiar: you have two action points to move and shoot, or use an item, reload, sprint further, or deploy a special ability. Cover is measured in half and full while flanking and elevation grant bonuses. There’s even a meter that fills with each hit, enabling a guaranteed critical hit with the next shot once it maxes out. Hunkering down to defend a position isn’t an option; you’re constantly advancing or retreating or circling around to match the ebb and flow of the battle. Items and abilities compound the decision-making during every turn. Enemy types are distinct and present different challenges, particularly when encountered in various combinations, and the tactical meat of the combat remains rich throughout.
But it’s all… not quite un-done, but lessened by the narrative and contextual chassis around the core combat engine. The setting can’t quite decide whether its post-apocalypse is seen through a Wild West lens or one tinted with mystical fantasy. The tone is only semi-serious, but the banter falls flat while more grave situations often come across as deeply silly. In stark contrast to Mutant Year Zero, the two main characters are unlikeable: the lead is a young Nathan Drake-type named Elvis, who quips and whines in equal measure, and his ‘brother’ Diggs, a robot with what can only be described as a stereotypical ‘black’ personality. It’s hard to want to spend any time with them.
With a tale that flags the dangers of capitalistic greed and uncritical tech-evangelism, the story gestures at humanity’s inability to respond to the accelerating climate crisis. Yet it has little to say beyond trite libertarian odes to self-reliance. Urging that we take some personal responsibility for a systemic failure is to miss the point entirely.
In the end, the combat designers of Miasma Chronicles may well have let loose the frogs of war. It’s just a shame the writers croaked it.
3 Stars: ★★★
The PC version of Miasma Chronicle was provided and played for the purposes of this review. GamesHub has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content. GamesHub may earn a small percentage of commission for products purchased via affiliate links.