I’m several hours into Mutant Year Zero: Road To Eden and my party includes a talking duck wearing a top hat for improved weapon range, a hulking anthropomorphic boar that can destroy cover just by running into it, and a plant/woman hybrid that controls trees with her mind. Yep, this game is weird as hell, and I love it. Based on a campaign from the pen and paper RPG of the same name, it’s a faithful adaptation of the story, setting, and tone of its source material that takes these elements and transplants them into an intriguing hybrid of real time stealth and turn based strategy.
You control a squad of Stalkers, elite scavengers whose role is to protect and find resources for The Ark, the last remaining bastion of humanity after a global apocalypse caused by a rare disease known as The Red Plague. Outside of The Ark lies The Zone, the heavily irradiated, biologically hazardous remains of Earth populated only by mutated wildlife and Ghouls, a bizarre group of survivors that appear to have gone mad from all the toxicity. Being the dangerous place that it is, the only kinds of “people” who can survive The Zone and thus are eligible to become Stalkers aren’t really human at all. They’re Mutants, a breed of anthropomorphic plant/animal/human hybrids that can survive the harsh conditions and come with a plethora of weird - but highly effective - skills afforded to them by their messed up DNA. And they’re going to need them, because The Ark is on the brink of collapse and in serious need of a miracle in the form of finding the mysterious Eden, a mythical location seemingly untouched by The Red Plague.
Without question, Mutant Year Zero’s greatest achievement is its world building. Thanks to astounding attention to detail, the game is incredibly immersive. Locations look stunning thanks to great lighting, asset design, and level geography (though the texture pop-in when loading new areas gets hard to ignore after a while). The sound design and music are a great blend of minimal, creepy soundscapes and tense, heart-pounding combat themes, punctuated by eerie environmental sounds and crisp, punchy gunfire. Many titles include collectables and various tidbits of information to help flesh out their universe, but Mutant Year Zero treats every single thing - down to the mud on the ground - as having an important role in sucking you into its world.
The writing and characters play a huge part here too. The story is told from the perspective of Bormin, a Stalker. Developers The Bearded Ladies have gone to great lengths to ensure that the narrative’s main mysteries are revealed in such a way that you experience the story at the same time as its characters, meaning there is very little chance you’ll work out any major reveals or plot twists ahead of time. Every character from the Stalkers to The Ark inhabitants and Ghouls are superbly written, and the game has a dark, ironic sense of humour that contrasts its bleak, oppressive atmosphere nicely. Party members engage in charming banter between battles that gives insights into their personalities and motivations, and frequently try to understand the purpose of everyday items left behind by humanity (usually hilariously incorrectly). Enemies use amusing call outs and taunts. The Ark inhabitants demonstrate the kind of stoic-yet-humorous attitudes you’d expect from the last members of the human race.
It’s a shame then that the gameplay doesn’t live up to the same lofty heights. Involving a combination of exploration, stealth, and turn based combat, the basic gameplay loop goes something like this: Enter a new area, scavenge for supplies, follow the objective marker to the next major story beat, avoid head-on combat as much as possible by sneakily separating and picking off individual enemies, invariably make a mistake and enter a full-blown firefight, lick your wounds, and repeat.
The exploration aspect of the game is simple, but engaging, allowing you to immediately go almost anywhere in the game world (apart from a few locales locked off for story reasons) after the initial tutorial areas. You’ll find yourself wanting to explore every nook and cranny of the game world at first, but after a while the slow movement speed will likely lead to just following the main story to save time. This is a huge shame as the aforementioned effort that went into world building and atmosphere ends up being wasted.
Stealth is a must in Mutant Year Zero. Utilising traditional stealth mechanics such as how much noise the Stalkers are generating and whether they have their flashlights on or off to increase or decrease their chances of being spotted, the game does a great job of creating some seriously tense moments. One part of the main campaign has your entire squad sneaking past a heavily armed outpost of Ghouls, at one point even funneling you into a tiny gap in a fence just outside of their sight range. However beyond these scripted moments - even in regular gameplay - you’ll want to utilise stealth to pick off enemies one by one, and avoid engaging any more than two bad guys at a time as much as possible.
It’s not because combat is bad. On the contrary, it’s extremely tense and well-executed. The skills and weapons on offer are particularly great. From standard military weaponry like sniper rifles and silenced pistols to bizarre improvised items like a gas powered RPG, there are plenty of ways to put holes in your enemies. And the skills are a blast to use. Each Stalker has a variety of skills to unlock through standard RPG-style XP accrual, which range from valuable passives like increased health and damage output, to outrageous actives like mind control, using tree roots to immobilise enemies, and growing wings to get to high ground. Finding the right combination of gear and skills is really rewarding, and you’ll look forward to trying new unlocks and loot out in the next combat encounter.
Well, that would be the case if combat wasn’t so punishingly hard that after the first few times all you’ll want to do is stay the hell away from every Ghoul you encounter. “Maybe you’re just shit and need to git gud.” Maybe. But as a veteran of classic series like XCOM and Jagged Alliance, and a fan of newer titles such as Battletech and Frozen Synapse, I’d like to think I can handle the basic elements of turn based strategy games. But in Mutant Year Zero, even on Normal difficulty, enemies hit really hard and seem to have precognitive abilities, often working out your next move before you even have. Turn it up to Hard and you had better kill that one weak Ghoul you’ve painstakingly separated from the rest of the pack on your first turn, unless you want them to make a bunch of noise and call in their heavily-armed allies to put a beatdown on you. Opt for the suicide mission that is Very Hard, and prepare to throw your mouse and keyboard at the wall. And then there’s Iron Mutant (the in-universe version of Iron Man) mode, which features squad member permadeath and saves the game after every turn of combat. I’m not kidding when I say one wrong move can lead to your entire squad being wiped out and having to start the game all over again if you’re playing on Iron Mutant. Even what seem like smart, calculated moves can backfire or fail thanks to RNG at times. You’ll definitely be yelling “oh come on!” at your screen plenty.
The compliment to be given here is that Mutant Year Zero really keeps you on your toes, and it puts the “strategy” in “turn based strategy”, making you seriously consider the pros and cons of entering or avoiding encounters. However at times it makes the idea of combat so anxiety-provoking that you’ll just err on the side of caution purely because you can’t cope with potentially failing an encounter and losing all your progress, or you’ll end up taking the easy way out and save scumming your way to victory. The flipside of course is that there are few games out there that can generate a sense of achievement quite like Mutant Year Zero when you actually succeed. Utilising stealth is an absolute must. You should never engage an entire group of enemies. Ever. Take your time isolating and killing them one by one. Take advantage of the plethora of cool skills that your squad have to help tip things in your favour. Really consider whether that pile of scrap is worth fighting for. If you’re the impatient type, this game is not for you. If you’re accustomed to titles like XCOM or Battletech where combat typically involves squad versus squad scenarios, you’ll need to take some time to adjust how you approach things in Mutant Year Zero. And be prepared to be heavily punished for your mistakes (and sometimes heavily punished even for seemingly doing the right thing).
If nothing else, Mutant Year Zero is unique, and in an industry full of bland, copycat dross, that goes a long way. The whole post-apocalyptic setting has been done numerous times before, but not since Fallout has it been so engaging and had such a wicked sense of humour. If you have the patience of a saint, the gameplay may not frustrate you as much as it has me, but even if you’re short tempered, the absolutely charming characters and brilliantly written story will keep you playing right to the end.
Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden (Reviewed on Windows)
This game is great, with minimal or no negatives.
A fantastic example of world building done right, but a real test of patience even for veteran strategy gamers.