Upon starting Windy Games’ self-described “pacifist roguelike”, Miasma Caves, I checked my calendar. I quickly confirmed that it was not 2002 and I was not playing a PS2-era JRPG, despite the overwhelming evidence of my senses and the creeping sensation of nostalgia. Basking in the brightly coloured main menu with its synthy, panpipe-dominated soundtrack, I clicked New Game, choosing from one of three save slots. Thus began our adventures as Lesath, the dragon girl on a quest to save her town by becoming the world’s foremost hoarder. Very draconic.
Miasma Caves itself begins in media res. I’m mid-spelunk, accompanied by Flicker, a bright green and minuscule dragon pixie who helpfully guides me in the ancient art of dumpster diving treasure hunting, which largely consists of picking up everything you can find which is not a rock or nailed down. Flicker also introduces us to the concept of “Appraising” – the skill that allows Lesath to accurately value items for sale, and as it increases, reveals more of the game’s lore through item descriptions.
Helpfully, Flicker then flies towards a nearby piece of treasure. Now, at this point, I thought that perhaps Flicker would serve as Lesath’s bosom companion, assisting us by rooting out well-hidden pieces of treasure. Cute!
I was, unfortunately, mistaken about Flicker’s longevity in our adventure. After he is unceremoniously crushed by rocks to signal the end of the tutorial…
…We depart the cave, never to see or hear from him again. Rest in peace, Flicker. May you find new life in later releases.
Lesath’s home village lies directly outside the cave. It is populated by a handful of perfectly stationary NPCs who stand at the ready to cheer us on in our quest to revitalise the village’s economy through the historical relics black market. Glassy-eyed and draconic, these NPCs are clearly a work-in-progress, but they are distinct and memorable regardless. My personal favourite was the shopkeeper. Stoic, discerning, and perfectly willing to purchase items at exactly the price I appraise them to be worth. His text-box calls him Yildun, a UI glitch named him TSHALOKP, but I just called him Handsome Pete for his beautiful face.
Gleaming handfuls of gold coin in hand, fresh from Handsome Pete’s bountiful pockets, I paid the village’s carpenter/architect a visit. For the meagre price of 2,500 gold coins – or 3 or so dips into the caves – he would upgrade one of the village’s buildings for me. On furnishing the gentleman with said gold, the funds promptly disappeared. There was no visible change to the buildings, disappointingly, but he assured me that the renovations were complete, leading me to believe that he works for the local council.
This forms the backbone of Miasma Caves’ gameplay feedback loop, such as it is. Cave-dive to retrieve artifacts and minerals, to sell to the shopkeeper, to buy village upgrades, to gain access to equipment that makes cave-diving more efficient and safer. Hence – “pacifist roguelike”. The caves are randomly generated. They can be refreshed by speaking to an ominous robed NPC standing near the edge of town.
Miasma Caves is not a terribly challenging experience as it is. The randomly generated caves occasionally present some challenge in the form of traversing hazardous terrain, and the danger of cave-ins is ever present (which are actually quite well implemented, if easily avoided). Of course, there are the eponymous miasmas. Cotton-candy coloured clouds of toxic gas, they will rapidly drain Lesath’s health bar while she stands within. The wildlife in the caves is limited to just a few species at present. There are basketball-sized green slimes who pick your pockets for your treasure, as well as some frankly adorable cloud/sheep hybrids called “Cumulos”. Cumulos, as far as I can tell, serve no purpose but for Lesath to pick up and shake like a living snow-globe, which restores some health.
Miasma Caves is charming. It’s light, it has potential, and the developers clearly have ambitions for growth. For now, though, I find it difficult to recommend. The joy of rogue-likes – randomly generated levels presenting a fresh challenge coupled with the feeling of incremental progress – is largely missing in Miasma Caves. There is no sense of a tangible goal; upgrading the buildings has no visible effect and barely a mechanical one. The challenge is absent as well, for the most part. Each trek into the caves feels much the same, and the few dangers are easy to avoid with minimal practise. Miasma Caves is an early draft. If you want a finished product, look elsewhere.
The game is in early access and we can expect it to exit that stage in autumn of 2019. One hopes that in that time, Miasma Caves will have gained sufficient polish. I will certainly be keeping an eye on it and will return once early access has ended. In the meantime – avoid it if you’re looking for polish or more than an hour or two of gameplay.