Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden looks like an XCOM knockoff at first glance, but stopping there would be a disservice to what is an oddly compelling strategy game. By focusing as much on preparation and stealth as it does on tactical combat fundamentals, Mutant Year Zero differentiates itself from its competitors by being a challenging tactics game that revels in rewarding patience, good sense, and a dash of boldness.
It also stars a talking duck and pig. The absurdity of which goes a long way to making the game charming.
Based on the tabletop RPG of the same name, Mutant Year Zero is set some decades after a conflux of apocalypses, which include nuclear war, a plague, and environmental devastation, have torn the world asunder, with only small bands of people surviving. In post-apocalyptic Sweden, one such community of survivors is called the Ark, which sends out Stalkers into the Zone to find supplies to keep the group alive. Bandits, robots, and insane mutants populate the land, though the survivors back at the Ark are just as mutated, if not more so. Hence the talking pig and duck being the main characters.
Don’t come to Mutant Year Zero expecting an original, or even an interesting, take on the apocalypse. Through stilted exposition and the ruins of the world itself, the game indulges in post-apocalypse cliches by the dozen. The story is bare bones and straightforward, told through non-animated cutscenes and the occasional line of dialogue, but it’s not what keeps you engaged in the game’s events. It merely exists to provide an excuse to shuffle you around from location to location.
Marginally better is the core cast of playable characters, which include the half-man half-duck Dux, the half-man-half pig
Fortunately, it’snot the aesthetic that propels MutantYear Zero forward; it’s the sublime mix between exploration and tactical combat. The world is connected via separate areas that each contain scrap to collect, weapons to upgrade, and enemies to fight. Each can be explored in real-time, and while I wish the pace was faster than the plodding speed in which you run through it, it works to give each area its own sense of permanence and persistence. The area with the crashed helicopter will never change, and if all enemies are eliminated, it will always remain safe.
Expeditions into new areas of the Zone are back ended by trips back to the Ark, which is easily the weakest part of the game. There are only three shops to visit inside theArk, each of which offers little variety apart from one-off upgrades and a small selection of items for purchase. Each time you visit the Ark after a major event, you are met with an exposition dump courtesy of the colony’s leader, in what is the most overwritten and bland aspect of a story that isn’t all that interesting in the first place. The Ark is just a pitstop on your journey, and what little flavour there is doesn’t endear you to it. Fortunately, each visit is brief, and most of your time will be spent exploring each area,
The open approach to each area lends itself well to the feature that defines the entire game -ambushes. When you encounter an enemy or group of enemies, you can press one button to transition from real-time exploration into turn-based tactical combat. Unless you blindly stumble into an enemy, you can take as much time as you need before starting an ambush, which means you can prepare your three-man squad to set up the perfect assault to catch enemies off guard.
This one mechanic makes it so much more engaging to prepare and involve yourself in the details of each fight. You’ll want to survey the area as carefully as possible to look for vantage points and environmental weaknesses to take advantage
Mutant Year Zero even encourages you to silently pick off stragglers one by one to even the odds before a big fight. And though this works in the early game, the ever-increasing hit points of enemies makes it all but impossible to use in the mid-to-late areas. If there’s one problem with the combat, it’s the games overt reliance on making most enemies damage sponges who are difficult not because of their abilities, but because they take multiple turns of coordinated shots to die.
At its best, Mutant Year Zero is a tense experience that is both stressful and thrilling. In one early game area, I circled a school to pick off isolated enemies one by one before advancing to the interior of the building to ambush two units on the second floor. Noise from the fight attracted the attention of a much larger group outside, and I found myself defending the second floor from an enemy assault. Using Selma’s Tree Huggability that I just unlocked, I pinned the enemy leader to one spot with vine sand unleashed a hail of bullets and crossbow bolts on his position. When that failed and the group had managed to reach the second-floor balcony, I threw a hand grenade, only to be surprised when the balcony floor was destroyed as multiple enemies died from the fall.
Nearly every fight tests your ability to plan ahead and make the most of your squads abilities. The skill tree for each character is relatively straightforward, with maybe a dozen unlockable abilities for each. Roughly half of these abilities allow for varied uses, such as Dux’s ability to grow moth wings and fly, while the rest are disappointingly straightforward and lacking in utility and imagination. While each character is pushed into a set role in the group, I would have liked to seen customization for each character so they don’t always end up into their predefined class so to speak.
By the time you’ve begun to experiment with party composition and late game abilities,
Still, what’s present in Mutant Year Zero is more than enough to make its tactical turn-based combat stand out. Thanks to its emphasis on stealth and ambushes, MutantYear Zero is a tense and rewarding strategy game that feels rewarding to play.