Bearded Ladies describes Miasma Chronicles as a "story of chosen family, mutant killers, sweeping post-apocalyptic American landscapes and powergloves". Like Mutant Year Zero, the studio's acclaimed game from 2018, it's another turn-based tactical RPG. At the very start of the story, players meet Elvis, a young man brought to the mining town of Sedentary, Kentucky as a baby, where he was left by his mother.
Elvis has a 'brother', a robot named Diggs, who was reprogrammed by Elvis' mother before she left her son in his care. Together, this duo will have to solve the mystery of the Miasma, a strange entity that I'm told "threatens the last vestiges of humanity and turns all who come in contact with it into barbaric corruptions of their former selves". As the brothers make their way through the world, they will be joined by a motley crew of outlandish characters. Additionally, Elvis has use of that mysterious powerglove, left to him by his mother, that can control the Miasma.
Set in New America, some 200 years in the future, Miasma Chronicles is clearly engaged with the climate crisis and late capitalism of today's world. "There are a lot of things that are related to ecological storytelling, and the current status of the earth's ecology," Miasma Chronicles' lead producer Mark Parker says, while showing me the game in action. "The planet, at one point, was a perfect place, where there was no pollution, and there was no hunger and the world's problems were solved. That was called The Great Stability... but something bad happened, and the world looks like it does now."
The most obvious example of these themes is the presence of plastic, which is this world's currency. "We talk about plastic in the lore," Parker tells me. "You can see that undamaged plastic is very valuable, because it's very rare and it's a hint towards what the Miasma might be. We thought it was funny to have an ironic element but also touching on an important issue."
It is all undeniably bleak, yes, but this does not mean Miasma Chronicles is devoid of warmth and humour. As with Bearded Ladies' previous work, Miasma Chronicles is laced with a sly, dark wit that engages you almost immediately. You can see this in the game's cast of eclectic and oh-so-endearing characters, something Bearded Ladies has shown a knack for in the past. Even Diggs, with his robotic and almost tin-can aesthetic, is someone you will want to protect as you fight your way through Miasma Chronicles' landscapes.
The banter between Diggs and Elvis is wisecracking, but full of affection, giving players the chance to experience an authentic brotherly bond. The opening moments of Miasma Chronicles sees Diggs simultaneously encouraging Elvis, while also providing his brother with a sense of security and comradery. When things for Elvis go slightly awry, there is no lingering judgement. Rather, Diggs shows a deep sense of compassion.
As well as Elvis and Diggs, who remain front and centre during my preview, there are also a variety of other NPCs that players can meet on their travels through New America. I am quite taken with Sedentary's mayor, one Mr. J Mason. The J here stands for Jarr, at least behind the scenes and an idea of Parker's that provided a lot of amusement within the team. While the developer doesn't go into details as to how Mason came to be the way he is (a head in a jar with a penchant for cigars), he does tell me he has been mayor for over 80 years.
Meanwhile, despite not seeing her during my preview, I am looking forward to finding out more about Elvis' mother, Bha Mahdi. Parker describes her role in Miasma Chronicles as the Obi-Wan Kenobi to Elvis' Luke Skywalker, and a "kick-ass" one at that.
In terms of the game itself, each playable character in Miasma Chronicles has their own skill deck (not tree), which can be reconfigured throughout the course of the adventure. One particular skill that stands out to me during my hands-off preview is Elvis' new Overwatch ability. This ability allows him to target multiple enemies within a cone-like area (an area that players will be able to increase during their playthrough, thanks to different weapons, including a shotgun called The Wide Boy, and such). It is an effective and incredibly satisfying way to pop off enemies while you continue to factor in each and every tactical possibility to achieve victory.
Diggs, meanwhile, truly is the ultimate big brother. Thanks to his own ability - known simply as "Big Bro" - that allows him to act as a shield for other characters, you can ricochet your shots off him to increase your chances of them meeting their final target. Parker assures me that Diggs does not mind this.
But one of the main things I want to talk to Parker about during my time with him is stealth. I'll be honest here, I was never very good at stealth in Mutant Year Zero. However, Parker assures me that Bearded Ladies has vastly improved its mechanics for Miasma Chronicles.
"We made our stealth system a much more precise experience, we allow the player to enter and exit tactical mode freely, allowing for positioning of characters without the need to commit to a fight," he says. "We improved the visualisation of the enemy's sight/awareness to a view cone that is affected by the geometry around them." This, Parker promises, will make sneaking around a much more satisfying and, importantly, a much more reliable part of the overall Miasma Chronicles experience.
As well as these tweaks, the team has added audio distractions to Miasma Chronicles. This means you will be able to throw objects such as bottles to mislead their enemies, or even use them to lure enemies away from the rest of their pack, giving players a tactical advantage over adversaries.
But it is not just the new and improved mechanics combined with charming characters that leads me to believe Miasma Chronicles is going to be a step up for the team. Even the world feels like an expressive amplification of Mutant Year Zero's. This is in part due to Bearded Ladies no longer being creatively constrained by an IP. The world of Miasma Chronicles is truly the studio's own, and it is loaded with places to explore and intricate lore to discover (although, yes, Dux does still get a mention).
Miasma Chronicles' map is two to three times bigger than that of Road to Eden's, and within it I'm told players will have many more things to fight and discover. This includes sidequests and such, as well as a host of unique and unusual adversaries. I am talking hideous, squelchy looking frog-like creatures ("never trust a frog in armour," Parker warns), barbaric tree entities known as Whisperers, and bandits, to name but a few.
Every inch of Miamsa Chronicles seems to be littered, often literally, with storytelling opportunities, be they ambushes or environmental cues. Posters, some of which are Easter eggs dedicated to the Bearded Ladies development team (keep your eyes peeled for a man hugging an alligator - that's Parker) adorn the walls of buildings, there are advertisements for drinks made with recycled sugar, particles of the mysterious Miasma itself dance around derelict vehicles in an almost hypnotic manner.
Visual dressings such as these all add to the dystopian charisma of New America, lifting it and bringing it to life, and that is before players start rifling through the game's many buildings, drawers and cupboards.
But a key question I still have is, is Miasma Chronicles accessible for newcomers to the tactical RPG genre, or for those who enjoyed the premise of Mutant Year Zero but found the game too demanding?
Parker believes it is, thanks in part to its four difficulty stages. The Bearded Ladies has introduced a Narrative stage to Miasma Chronicles, something that was lacking in Mutant Year Zero. This is billed as the ideal option for those players who want to experience the world and story of Miasma Chronicles, but "without too much challenge".
At the other end of the scale, we have Miamsa Chronicles' Alpha Editor. This will perhaps be a touch more forgiving than Mutant Year Zero's hardest difficulty, but don't get me wrong, I have no doubt it will provide plenty of challenges for those who really want to push their gameplay experience to its extremes. Manual saves are disabled in Alpha Editor, and the majority of enemies will deal more damage.
Once you have chosen the difficulty level, players can choose between either Miasma Chronicles' 'Full tactical' or 'Light tactical' mode. Full tactical is your classic turn-based experience and hit chances in this mode will be affected by distances. Light, on the other hand, is dubbed as being easier to get to grips with, and the ideal option for those new to the genre. Your hit chances in this mode will not be affected by distance.
I ask Parker if other accessibility options will also be included on Miasma Chronicles' launch, and specifically inquire about a feature that will allow players to adjust how the text on screen is presented. Currently, this is not something that will be implemented on the game's launch, however Parker says the team will be listening to feedback from across the board, and if there is demand for these sorts of features they will look into a way to get them included.
Despite now chatting for over two hours, my time with Parker and Miasma Chronicles feels too short. I leave our call wanting to see and hear more, itself a promising sign for what is to come.
Parker says that Miasma Chronicles will be able to set itself apart in the crowded post-apocalyptic sci-fantasy genre, and even with my fairly limited time with the game, I really believe what he tells me.