We loved Van Halen. Eddie and Alex, the two eponymous brothers in the band were often overshadowed by flamboyant frontman David Lee Roth. We think he’s ace too, mainly for his daft solo shit like Just A Gigolo / I Ain’t Got Nobody. Particularly the amazing video that accompanied it with Dave TV and assorted hangers on, chief of which was one who told Dave he had CHARASMA!
For some reason our brain has made a somewhat erratic neural connection, so we call Swedish dev The Bearded Ladies’ latest turn-based strategy game Charasma Chronicles aka Charasma Carpenter. When in fact it’s called Miasma Chronicles. It’s mechanically similar to their previous title Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden as reviewed by our man Gareth five years ago. Somewhat unusually, it’s a PS5/XSX/PC joint only so no awkward legacy backwards compatibility is holding it back as has often been the case otherwise.
For those somewhat longer in the tooth, this is a swanky take on Julian Gollop’s classic UFO: Enemy Unknown and its follow up XCOM: Terror From The Deep. Those games were that long ago that they got a disc release on the original PlayStation in the second wave of PAL games in November 1995. There’s also been the 2012 redux games from Firaxis but we didn’t get on with those particularly. Not sure why, but they just didn’t hit the spot for us. Perhaps it was due to it not really working for us on console. Or maybe it was down to the fact one was a freebie on Games With Gold aka PS Plus so we didn’t have the value perception we’d have otherwise.
This reviewer didn’t play Mutant Year Zero though, so we’ve only got our experiences of similar games and the review to go by. Miasma Chronicles is similarly set in a post-apocalyptic landscape, in this case the US Midwest after an initially unmentioned calamity. Just like Mutant Year Zero, Miasma Chronicles is a tactics shooter with RPG elements. And similarly, you can take down enemies by means of stealth kills without going into battle proper. Miasma Chronicles is also nails hard at times like its predecessor.
Go into a fight unprepared without having whittled down any sentries on the perimeter and you’ll find yourself overwhelmed very quickly and face the Game Over screen. We’ve seen it quite a lot, put it that way. Thankfully there’s a well implemented fast travel system and you can resupply with essential consumables if you find yourself repeatedly dying in one spot. Though the game will tell you if you’ve ventured into an area and the enemies there are at a much higher level than you are.
At the outset you’ll be introduced to floppy haired kid Elvis (though he doesn’t work down the chip shop) and his jive talking mining robot companion Diggs. The initial antagonists are seven-foot tall mutant frogs known as grabbers. They’ve got it in for the scattered human survivors that remain in the badlands around the main settlement of Sedentary. Elvis seeks to find his mum by way of breaking through the titular miasma at the beginning of the game only to fail.
This then sets up a combat tutorial of sorts where you’re shown the basics of combat. Oddly, fundamental genre mechanics like overwatch aren’t initially available to use, instead on the talent tree. As you level up, you’ll get an upgrade point for each level. You know the drill, you can’t be a master of all, you need to decide where to strengthen your character. They’re generally the likes of extra health to start with and useful things like not being seen by enemy overwatch.
Combat has the usual hallmarks of turn based combat, cover and your distance from the target are factors in terms of your likelihood of hitting them with your weapon. This is handily shown with a percentage as well as your critical hit chance. Though you can still have the daft outcome of, say, an 85% chance to hit at almost point blank range and missing. It’s unlikely but it still happens. Ranged weapons generally work better at the limits of their range, so it’s usually advantageous to retreat with your sniper. Once you get into a groove, combat will really click and it’s genuinely enjoyable.
Quite early on you’ll meet an additional party member who adds a very handy silenced sniper rifle to the equation. With this you can pick off those enemies not in line of sight of an ally using the ambush function. You can also draw them away with a noisemaker, typically a broken bottle. Once they enter your killzone, you almost feel a little sorry for them as you dispatch them. Soon after you’ll likely find a silenced assault rifle that makes for better chances to take down those enemies with a slightly heftier health bar. As we mentioned earlier, picking off stragglers like an orca eating baby seals is often the best strategy lest you end up in a pitched battle against every single enemy in the vicinity.
While the landscape you negotiate might appear a little blasted and wretched, this is explained by the fact that the ultimate antagonists The First Family are running things. The miasma is a manifestation of the anti-pollution measures brought in by one of the mega corporations who ultimately ended up deposing the government of the USA several decades prior. It all makes sense in the context of the game, trust us.
Those that came before are referred to in almost reverential tones as the Originals, the biggest corporation of which was called Edezen. Their robot workers are scattered around the game world and your man Elvis has the ability to hack their firmware to fill in the back story. This along with the frequent audio logs you find do a good job of showing how things went when the balloon went up. Miasma seemed to strike suddenly with the most obvious being that contemporary portent of the apocalypse of planes falling from the sky.
Elvis has a sorta Nintendo Power Glove thing that lets him manipulate the miasma and throw enemies around or chain lightning them. Each miasma type can be modified with chips you’ll find around the place, so you can shrink enemies as well as set them on fire for example. This is all dependent on your glove being powered up.
This energy along with your health is generally dependent on using consumables, though unless you level up, there’s no way to recharge your power or health outside of combat otherwise. No JPG style inns here where you can fully heal up. When your party members die in combat, they’re out for the count though they are resurrected afterwards with half of their health replenished.
Each fight you go into can be your last with one bad decision often cascading to the point where you find yourself on the ropes early on. The story missions in particular can feel like you’re thrown into the fray underpowered, though more often than not it just required you to rethink your strategy.
Every so often you’ll find a miasma storm that your glove can absorb and hence grant new abilities. These are generally surrounded by enemies, so you have to dispatch them before you get a new power. One power came in very handy once we beat one particular boss, we were able to summon a healer who’d wander round the battlefield healing your party members as well as drawing fire from enemies. Quite useful as it meant we saved our healing items otherwise.
The story is fairly focussed on the USA, though whether the miasma affected the world outside isn’t entirely clear. California being a safe haven is alluded to by some survivors and one wry remark says there’s more to the world than just America. After you begin the second chronicle, the pace fair picks up at a rapid rate, though there’s nothing to stop you revisiting prior locations, often as side quests.
At one particular point of the story you’re given a warning that you’re reaching a point of no return in terms of side quests and prior areas, it’s good that you’re warned. But this also had the effect of making us halt progress on the story and finish off everything else before continuing. Not to mention one side quest we had to do was nails hard and we’d still not cleared it. We did feel a little overwhelmed, though not Ubisoft open world levels of busywork. Perhaps highlighting those active quests that become unavailable would be a better implementation. This does highlight the fairly linear progression through the story with your progress gated quite conclusively, but it does make sense narratively.
In conclusion, Miasma Chronicles is rather excellent and had us playing it rather than working as we should’ve been. It also stopped us playing Dicey Dungeons, that in itself is significant given how addictive that game is. The post-miasma affected landscape is well depicted and combat is generally solid. Daft things like not being able to heal up fully outside battle without using items are an annoyance though.
+ Story is generally solid, with audio logs and found items doing a good job filling out the narrative
+ Your failures in battles are generally down to your own ineptitude
+ No legacy support for PS4 mean not as many technical compromises needed to be made
- You can feel underpowered, especially if you don’t have enough health kits going into a battle
- Can feel arbitrarily tough at times
- The point of no return in the story means you feel compelled to mop up everything before continuing as it isn’t clear what you can continue with, if anything