Game-related ramblings.

Scratching That Itch: Miasma Caves

This is the fourteenth entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the 1704 1741 games and game-related things included in the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,175,279.81 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

Our next random selection from the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality is Miasma Caves, by Windy Games. Its tagline in the bundle reads:

Explorative action-adventure through caves to find the source of the Miasm…

The character limit cuts it off there, but I’m pretty sure it was going to say “Miasma.”

Miasma Caves is a much larger offering than anything that’s come up so far in Scratching That Itch. Players take control of Lesath, a young draconid (humanoid lizard) tasked with spelunking the caverns near her town of Radiant Ridge, searching for artifacts from the ancient subterranean draconid civilizations. It seems that these caverns are the reason Radiant Ridge was founded, but I mostly had to infer this as I played. One thing I really like about Miasma Caves is that it doesn’t tell its story through exposition. Instead, players uncover it through the descriptions of the items they find. Select Lesath’s starting pack, for example, and we are told that Lesath’s mother helped her make it when she was younger, as an imitation of a pack she saw for sale in the city. It’s getting worn now, but Lesath keeps it because it reminds her of her mother. Find some steel in the cave, and Lesath’s excited description informs us that the draconid smiths can work with steel but don’t know how to make it, so it will fetch a high price in the city.

I love this. In a game about searching for treasures, the story and setting are treasures of their own to uncover. Lesath knows more than the player does, but isn’t worried about explaining it. Even the opening tutorial uses this approach. Starting in media res, players join Lesath as she is finishing up one of her spelunking expeditions, gathering some final treasures and making her way back out of the cave to sell her haul. In town, Lesath can talk to her fellow townsfolk and restock her supplies before her next expedition. With enough money, she can upgrade buildings in the town so they offer better items.

But the expeditions are the heart of the game. The caverns are randomly generated, and can be re-set in town if the player doesn’t like the layout. They seem to be generated volumetrically, giving the three dimensional tunnels and caverns a realistic, if coarse-grained, shape. This also means they are deformable, so Lesath can dig through obstructions or mine valuable gemstones from the walls using picks or even her claws. It also means that caverns can collapse on her head. Cave ins are but one environmental hazard Lesath must brave, but they are perhaps the most dangerous, especially in the deeper tunnels. Pockets of poisonous gas can be neutralized with the right equipment, or simply dashed through quickly otherwise, and the creatures in the cave are not overtly hostile. They can interfere in various ways, but Miasma Caves is a nonviolent game, with the focus solely on exploring.

The biggest challenge is navigating. Exploring the caves reminded me of spelunking in very early versions of Minecraft, when I had to use torches to mark the path I’d walked to avoid getting disoriented or lost. Lesath can use glowing waymarkers to mark her path in a similar way, but they must be placed carefully lest a slime eat them, or a cranky cave bird carry them off. Even with these markers, it’s easy to get lost, and easy to forget that climbing back out can be a lot harder than descending. Especially after a cave in or two. Players must be careful to turn back early enough, because the titular miasma slowly drains Lesath’s health while she’s underground, and if she passes out she’ll lose all the treasures and items she’s carrying, and the cave layout will be forcibly reset.

Early on, expeditions are short, since Lesath has a small pack and there are plenty of new treasures to find in the shallow depths. But after some upgrades players will want to delve deeper, where it’s easy to get lost or stuck and not make it back. When that happens, the penalty feels very harsh. At this point, players would have spent some time mapping out the caverns, learning where the dead ends are and which passages lead onwards, but all that is lost as the cave is reset. And losing the treasures Lesath is carrying not only means losing out on the money they would have brought in, but also experience for Lesath’s appraising skills, which is granted for each sale. Later I learned that these skills aren’t as important as I thought, as they do not affect selling prices, just Lesath’s understanding of the artifacts she uncovers. Still, it takes a lot of time to level up her skills, so it hurts to miss out on progress towards that goal.

Some other annoyances plagued my explorations too. The occasional clipping error found Lesath stuck on a platform, instantly teleporting back to it whenever she tried to leap away. Ropes are cool, and reminiscent of rope arrows from the Thief games, but are tricky to use and lead to Lesath falling back down and taking a lot of fall damage more often than not. In fact, dropping off of a rope always seemed to do some fall damage, no matter how close Lesath was to the ground. Sometimes a botched rope attempt was the difference between escaping to the surface and passing out in the cave, which was quite frustrating.

But I still found myself compelled to return to the caves. I wanted to piece together the mysteries of the older civilizations, and the source of the miasma which drove the draconids to the surface so long ago. I like how the treasures are separated into different types: natural treasures like gemstones, artifacts from the ancient cave-dwelling tribes, books of various origins, and the mysterious aethertech. Sold to the church for safe disposal, aethertech artifacts bend magic in strange ways and are believed to be responsible for the miasma. These valuable treasures are found only in the deepest tunnels and chambers, and Lesath is usually confounded as to their purpose. But the player might not be…

Some of the town upgrades help make navigating the caves easier. I’d recommend investing in the Adventure Shop first, as the new items this unlocks are far more useful when exploring. Slime-proof waymarkers and extra-long ropes make a huge difference. The better healing items offered by an upgraded Inn also make extended spelunking more viable. While exploring, players will find new equipment for Lesath that provide myriad advantages as well, and late in the game I was routinely heading for the deepest levels with enough supplies to find my way back with high confidence. Even so, I was occasionally frustrated by the confusing caverns, dead ends, and cave ins. When I had documented most of the treasures and was searching for the few that remained, my excursions could easily be fruitless, and I often voluntarily changed the cave layout in the hopes of finding a more direct route down.

There’s no reason players must find every single item, of course. There’s a traditional ending of sorts, related to the central mystery at the bottom of the cave, but I continued for a little while after that to learn more about aethertech. Eventually, however, my expeditions were no longer yielding any new finds, even though I hadn’t quite found every item in the game. I decided it was time to hang up my spelunking gear and retire.

If you are prone to getting lost and find navigation more of a nightmare than a challenge, then Miasma Caves is likely not for you. But if the prospect of exploring a vast cave system appeals, there’s a lot on offer here, and the core experience is rewarding despite a few annoyances and bugs. Countless treasures await you in the caverns, and you just might learn a thing or two about the ancient draconids while you’re at it. If you missed it in the bundle, Miasma Caves is available for $19.99 (also on Steam). Just watch out for cave ins, and make sure you know how to get back out again!

That’s 14 down, and a cool 1690 1727 to go.

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2 Comments

  1. Gregg B

    I’m enjoying this series Walter! I remember looking at Miasma Caves after picking up the bundle. It looks and sounds interesting. I too like the story being told via item appraisals!

    • Glad you’re enjoying the series! Miasma Caves was a pleasant surprise, consuming much more gaming time than I expected. It’s worth checking out!

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