If the opening dialogue between a grizzled, shotgun-toting boar and a wisecracking duck wasn’t a solid-enough indicator, Mutant Year Zero: Road To Eden isn’t your average tactical game.
While you may think this is entirely due to the vibrant post-apocalyptic setting populated with heavily armed anthropomorphic animals, the reality is that the game’s most unusual qualities come as a result of its willingness to experiment with some of the turn-based strategy genre’s biggest trends.
It goes without saying that tinkering with the fundamentals of some of the biggest tactical combat games in the business is a bold move, especially for a studio as small as The Bearded Ladies. Luckily for the Swedish development team, however, it’s an approach that makes for an exciting, challenging and unique adventure that, despite being noticeably rough around the edges, consistently surprises and never wears out its welcome.
If you’ve played 2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown, or its equally fantastic follow-up, you’ll instantly be at home with the brand of tactical gameplay at the heart of Mutant Year Zero. You control a small team of soldiers and engage in turn-based combat scenarios, using cover, flanking and items to get the edge on your enemy and finish them off. Attacking enemies centres around the percentage of how likely your gunfire is to hit – leaving you in the typical XCOM scenario where your 75% chance to hit misses and leads to the devastation of your entire team – and features numerous different abilities depending on which character is selected.
This is all par for the course for a turn-based tactical combat game, but where Mutant Year Zero really finds its originality is in its frantic stealth mechanics and rampant difficulty. Unlike the armoured titans of XCOM, the survivors of this terrifying world aren’t indestructible warriors; they’re vulnerable scavengers that rely on their wits to get by. For this reason, you’re not going to be able to blast your way through this savage world guns blazing, enemies able to carve chunks out of your health bar every time they fire a weapon.
To counteract these unfair advantages, most of your time in Mutant Year Zero will be spent surveying groups of enemies, positioning your party and picking off stragglers as you dwindle down the opposition and even the odds. Setting up a perfect ambush takes planning and perfection. Using a loud weapon alerts other enemies to your presence, missing shots can lead to foes darting into cover and stumbling into a horde of psychopaths’ line of sight often means sudden death or an instant reload.
It’s a surprisingly sharp and intelligent system, often forcing you to plan enemy encounters ahead of time and assemble risky and intricate plans. It’s a shame, however, that these setups can be so infuriating to navigate. Having to position your soldiers while toggling whether to regroup, hide or split up becomes a chore in lengthier ambushes. Even more frustrating, it’s often hard to tell how far your enemies can hear or see due to poorly implemented UI. It can make enjoying these brilliant stealth encounters tedious at times, although, overall it does little to spoil their satisfying nature.
Outside of these combat scenarios comes the exploration side of Mutant Year Zero’s gameplay. Taking control of your squad in real time, this section of the game allows you to discover items, search areas, listen to lore-based dialogue, and find useful loot. It’s also here that you can access your inventory screen, switch party members, and build skill trees, allowing you to equip your squad with new armour and weapons or spend acquired experience on new abilities. It’s nothing mind-blowing but works well, providing a fairly intuitive set of systems to go to between battles.
What makes this exploration aspect of the game more inviting is the world it sets you loose in. Taking place in a desolate distant-future in which humanity has been near eradicated in favour of deranged, cannibalistic ghouls, the game’s story follows a group of mutant survivors known as Stalkers. Living above the apocalyptic world in a fortified haven known as the Ark, these animal-human hybrids must forge out to gather supplies and weapons to combat the threats amassing in the savage wasteland that lies below.
It’s this remarkable setting that provides a much-needed core to Mutant Year Zero’s unique experience. Whether fleshing out the lore through rewarding exploration, amusing character dialogue, or by the impressive number of varied locations on offer throughout the campaign, it feels as if a considerable amount of time was poured into making this abandoned world one you want to learn more about.
In turn, it’s hard not to want to scour every inch of Mutant Year Zero’s large map, finding secrets, lore tidbits and challenging bosses along the way. Without this vital spurring on of non-compulsory content, it’s likely many of the late game challenges posed throughout the campaign would be something of a grind, especially as your characters require additional experience and items that you can only find in optional areas. The game’s varied side stories mean there’s never a moment where gameplay feels like needless filler, and it’s all the better for it.
This is present in the cast of diverse protagonists, too. While a couple don’t quite hit the mark and remained on the bench for the majority of my playthrough, others – such as Dux, a smart-mouthed, marksman duck ripped straight from a classic noir flick; and Farrow, a one-eyed British fox with a taste for cheesy one-liners – make spending time in this wasteland feel abundant with rustic charm.
But this isn’t to say that Mutant Year Zero doesn’t have its issues. For one, this doesn’t have quite the same polish as the games it’s clearly taken influence from. The visuals feel slightly bland, the game sometimes slows down significantly in larger combat situations, and load times can feel overly-lengthy. Worse than that, the narrative can never quite match the amazing world it falls in front of, lacking direction and ending far too quickly on a half-baked plot twist that never feels established enough to land.
Yet, it’s hard to let Mutant Year Zero’s downfalls disguise the fact that it’s a clever and ambitious tactical gem that’s unafraid of trying new and ambitious ideas. Its unique combat systems and engaging world make even its most crushing difficulty spikes a joy to decipher. Granted, it may not brandish the same finesse as the genre’s more accomplished staples, but after seeing the interesting gameplay changes The Bearded Ladies have employed on the typical formula, it’s safe to say that Mutant Year Zero’s lack of polish is easy to forgive when partnered with its fun, unconventional design.