Lee Varley, game director of Miasma Chronicles tells post-apocalypse survivor Vince Pavey about The Bearded Ladies’ latest tactical adventure.
Miasma Chronicles is set in a future version of the United States that has been torn apart by a twisted substance named miasma, that corrupts all it touches. Its players join a young man named Elvis on his quest to find his mother, who seemed to have some sort of connection to the strange phenomenon – one that Elvis shares.
Elvis is accompanied on his quest by a robot named Diggs, that is for all intents and purposes his older brother, a mysterious sniper named Jade, and others, as the group uncovers and questions the mysteries of a haunted world where it often feels like people are perhaps living on borrowed time.
For studio The Bearded Ladies, the strategy RPG follows up its work on Mutant Year Zero, a turn-based strategic RPG about anthropomorphic animal mutants (it’s the one with the oversized boar and the duck called er, Dux) that was a loose adaptation of the popular post-apocalyptic tabletop game of the same name.
Adding another wrinkle, this time around the developer wasn’t only coming up with new gameplay concepts, but the game world in its entirety. So why go for another grim post-apocalypse at all?
“We wanted to explore a different type of future. We thought: what happens if we continue on our current path of ignoring grave environmental issues and relying on egocentric billionaires for all the solutions? What will that future look like?” explains Lee Varley, the game’s director.
“We felt like we should continue on and explore more of what we had started with Mutant Year Zero. For that game project, we borrowed a world and heavily added to it,” he adds.
“With Miasma Chronicles, we had to start from scratch. The lore, history, characters, and everything else were all new. I initially wanted to go a bit more serious in the narrative, but we are The Bearded Ladies, and the team shaped the experience as we moved forward with our own DNA.”
ALL SHOOK UP
While developing their very own post-apocalyptic world and the people that would carve out a living among its afflicted environments, Varley and the rest of the development team looked towards some of the greats of the roleplaying genre for inspiration, going as far back as the original PlayStation and its grand multidisc adventures, which were often packed to the brim with high concepts and memorable ensemble casts you just wanted to be around.
“We were inspired by older RPGs like Xenogears. Xenogears is about a group of friends going on a grand adventure. Games like that were a big influence,” says Varley. Influences were not limited to video games, but also films about an eclectic group of 80s kids on a quest for a pirate’s treasure, and the dark struggles of a teenage scavenger and his telepathic dog living in a post-nuclear horror world.
“We also looked, strangely enough, at movies like The Goonies. The Goonies is about a group of young kids going on an adventure, and they’re a bunch of over the top but well rounded characters. It was actually a strong influence for the general tone of Miasma. We also looked at things like A Boy and His Dog. The surrealness of the apocalypse in that movie was interesting.”
As for Miasma Chronicles’ difficulty curve, the studio spent a lot of time looking at a very particular modern RPG subgenre that continues to grow in popularity, despite a reputation for brutal challenge.
“We looked at Soulslike games, where failure is just a part of learning. Miasma Chronicles is a game which also encourages failure as a way to learn. Miasma is a tactical adventure, but it’s also a game that is a bit old school in its approach. It’s a challenging game that demands a lot from its players but also rewards them a lot,” adds Varley.
With SRPG games going through a resurgence in popularity at the moment, it was important to make sure that Miasma Chronicles would feel unique among its contemporaries and give it the best shot possible to stop the game from getting lost in the crowd.
That meant the development team needed to try and get away from comparisons to games that already exist for people to play, and do its best to approach designing for its game from a different perspective.
“We wanted to ensure the game feels like a genuine tactical experience, and not just button clicking to success, so the game is tuned for players who really want their brain to be challenged in multiple ways. We always try to build games that are not just ‘XCOM with X’, and make our games more like puzzle games with multiple solutions.”
This puzzle-first mindset led to the incorporation of stealth gameplay into Miasma Chronicles’ tactics systems; that could completely change the direction of battles with certain foes. It also meant that each and every encounter had to be analysed for that sort of player, too, which was time consuming. “It took a lot of work to blend the stealth game and strategy RPG game styles together. Not only did we need to build tight and intense tactical encounters – they also needed to work as stealth setups.”
It was important that these systems worked together without friction for a long period of time, as strategy RPGs aren’t exactly known for being short, and if things had gotten stale or annoying the game could lose the player to one of the many other options out there. “A lot of design focus for us was on our tactical fights. That is the very core of the game and must work not just once, but over 30 odd hours of game time. So we had to nail progression, weapons and enemy design to make sure the fights throughout keep evolving and don’t become stale.
A LITTLE LESS CONVERSATION
If you take a look at online reviews for Mutant Year Zero, a lot of people found that it was simply too difficult, which in itself could have been a decision made to make up for the fact that the game was rather short. These were two areas where the team looked to directly improve with Miasma Chronicles, which not only has increased in length and includes even more difficulty settings, but has more granular customisation for the rules of the tactics systems within it in general.
“When we released Mutant Year Zero, we got a lot of comments that the game was too short, and that people really wanted a few more RPG things. So we added much more game time, and now allow you to talk and have conversations. Some people also didn’t get on with the RNG in Mutant Year Zero, so we added a ‘light tactical mode’ which has much less RNG and plays out in a different way to the full RNG tactical mode.”
Now on the other side of development, Varley reveals that his ideal version of Miasma Chronicles might have been less of a turn-based SRPG altogether.
“If I were to start over again with Miasma Chronicles, I would like more experiences to play out in the real time sections. I’d want more skills that feed into the real time areas, so we could open up new experiences that are not just stealth-based.”
Admittedly, reactions to Miasma Chronicles overall have been a little bit mixed. That doesn’t bother The Bearded Ladies, who say they expected to garner stronger, more polarised reactions from those that gave their time to their first title.
“The response to our game has been really fun. Miasma is what I like to call a Marmite game, where you love it or hate it,” says Varley. “We try not to build bland games that try to appeal to everyone, and our games are titles that strongly appeal to a few.”