**Free review copy provided by the publisher**
Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden adds looting and stealth options to the strategy game staples, while also removing a lot of the RNG you come to expect from the genre, with the end result being a combat experience more akin to a puzzle game like Into the Breach than a strategy game like X-COM. Combat is where Mutant Year Zero shines. Fights are challenging and can drag on for ages, coming down to that last fifty-fifty shot which determines the success or failure of the last thirty minutes of fighting and the ten minutes planning that preceded it. Losing is devastating, but winning is immensely satisfying, bordering on euphoric at times.
It’s outside of the combat encounters where Mutant Year Zero falls short, with its biggest failure being a post-apocalyptic world which, despite letting you play as a humanoid boar, duck, and fox, is somehow cliche and uninteresting. Likewise, when it comes to specialization, the system of mutations is uninspired and so limited in number that the five characters have overlapping special abilities.
Based on the tabletop RPG of the same name, Mutant Year Zero takes place in a post-apocalyptic future where humanity is almost entirely extinct due to a mixture of climate change, the red plague, and nuclear war. This is the kitchen sink approach to creating a backstory for your post-apocalyptic world. As a result of the radiation, humans mutated into various types of anthropomorphic animals who now live in the Ark under the care of the Elder, a regular human being who seems to be the sole source of knowledge of the world before disaster struck. The Ark is presented as the last place with any intelligent life left in the world, although humans continue to live in the wasteland as ghouls driven mad by the radiation.
You start off playing as Bormin and Dux, a boar and a duck, who are stalkers tasked with the job of leaving the Ark to gather resources and keep the Ark going. After returning from a hunt, the Elder gives you an urgent assignment: rescue Hammon, the Ark’s most important stalker. He’s a technical genius and the ark couldn’t run without him which makes you wonder why he was sent out on dangerous assignments in the first place, but nevermind.
Hammon was kidnapped by a religious group called the Nova Sect who plan to use Hammon to reactivate old weapons belonging to the ancients, the ancients being humanity and the old weapons being nuclear bombs. During the campaign, you uncover rumors of a place called Eden that might hold the secret to the history of the mutants, although the Elder regularly denies that such a place exists.
As you may have already noticed, Mutant Year Zero doesn’t have much subtlety when it comes to naming things. The humanoid animals are all surviving on board an Ark, the leader is an old man called the Elder, humans are referred to as the Ancients, mutated humans are called ghouls, and the end goal is to find Eden. It feels like a bunch of placeholder names that were created early in development and then never replaced.
As a long time Fallout fan, I’m a sucker for a good post-apocalyptic world and love uncovering how Earth ended up the way it did in each story. For the first hour or so, I found the world of Mutant Year Zero to be compelling and explored every nook and cranny desperately hoping for more information about what happened in the past and secrets about Eden. However, it soon became clear that the world wouldn’t be fleshed out much beyond what we learn in the intro.
The characters are also frustratingly two-dimensional. Bormin starts off as a little grumpier and stricter than Dux, however after a couple of hours they blended into each other and if it weren’t for the visual indicator of who was speaking I would have had no idea who was who. Neither of them has an interesting backstory and they don’t develop as characters during the game. The other companions you meet do at least have a semblance of history such as Selma, who was a Stalker on Hammon’s team and wants him back, or Farrow, who wants revenge on the people who destroyed her settlement.
Occasionally I smiled with the writing instead of at it, such as when the group finds artifacts from the Ancients, be it the telescope that they call a “far looker,” or the boom box which is described as a machine that makes a hissing noise with a slot to keep things in at the front. But much of this writing misses the mark as well. Take the description of the iPod. There’s a jokey reference to it being a fruit tester, because of the apple logo and flashing battery, but they also note that by attaching headphones to it you can listen to music. So wouldn’t it be more reasonable to assume it was for listening to music?
Obviously, these are minor issues that I fully recognize many people will not care about, but they bugged me and stopped me getting invested into both the world and the characters. Fortunately, most of your time spent with Mutant Year Zero is in combat and that is largely excellent. I played on the normal difficulty where your health regenerates between fights. On hard, you get 50% health back, and on very hard you don’t get any. There’s also an iron mutant mode with no manual saving and permadeath. I found the first half of the game to be fairly challenging even on the normal setting although by the end it became relatively easy.
Mutant Year Zero works a little differently to other strategy games. Instead of being thrown into combat encounters, you’re given the chance to explore the area for loot and to figure out the enemy types and their positions. Enemies have clear vision circles which get bigger if you use your torch in their vicinity, however it’s generally fairly easy to move around sight unseen. You can even hide in plain sight and enemies will never spot you.
The best strategy is to ambush enemies when they are alone or in small groups away from the pack and take them out silently to whittle down the numbers. You can do this by using silent weapons or making sure you’re far enough away from backup to avoid being heard. You won’t be able to avoid big fights entirely, but your job will be a lot easier if you’re only up against four or five instead of ten to fifteen. Some enemies should be prioritized, such as the shamans who will call in reinforcements from off screen, effectively adding to the number of enemies you need to defeat, and med bots who bring dead enemies back to life.
I enjoyed most of the combat encounters. Getting into a good starting position is absolutely crucial because while the combat is fairly simple, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. You have two action points per turn for each character, with attacks ending the turn regardless of when you use them. Each character also has special moves such as the ability to guarantee a critical hit on contact, at the cost of a reduced chance of hitting overall, a stun on robotic enemies, or Bormin’s character specific ability to knock out enemies with a charge.
There is some randomness, but it’s limited and can be almost entirely removed from the equation if you play well. Attacks are either a guaranteed hit or miss, or at set percentages of 25%, 50%, and 75%. Unless you have absolutely no other options, you probably shouldn’t bother shooting at 25% or 50%. You can always move closer to the enemy or go into overwatch which gives you a chance to hit on the enemy’s turn if they go into your line of sight. Even shooting at 75% is probably avoidable, although that was a risk I was happy to take. This is why RNG plays such a limited factor. You shouldn’t have to rely on it here. Correctly solving the puzzle inherent in each battle largely eliminates the need for luck.
I enjoyed the fights regardless of whether I won or lost which surprises me because I’m typically a sore loser. In one encounter, I tried taking out two robots without alerting their friends however it all went wrong and at least ten of them came from all over the map to attack me. I was tempted to restart the encounter but carried on anyway. Through a lot of hiding and some EMP grenades, I managed to take out all but two. They were both low on health but so was I and I didn’t have any more med packs. I ended up losing the fight which had taken over thirty minutes. I was exhausted but not downhearted.
Conversely, there was the time I approached a new area which was guarded by a level 45 enemy. I was about level 39 at the time and the enemy had a red skull marker which meant don’t even bother. I snuck around to scope the place out. The entire area was full of level 45 enemies and I clearly wasn’t meant to be there yet. There was also a huge mech with an equally massive health bar. And a computer. Using the computer let me switch the mech on so that it joins in the fight, attacking people at random. With the mech causing a distraction, I was able to take out the entire camp of enemies over a long battle. The mech dealt almost as much damage to me as the enemies, but he consumed all of their attention while I picked hiding spots and took shots when possible. It was incredibly satisfying even if I know a more skilled player would have made short work of it.
On the downside, much of the challenge disappears near the end once you have the right gear. The late game challenge mainly comes from robots but once you’re stocked up with weapon mods that stun them and a bunch of EMP grenades, they can’t put up much of a fight. I played on normal, so the lack of challenge wasn’t a problem—I could always have upped it to hard—it’s just that the difficulty is a bit too front-loaded.
Mutant Year Zero also adds in a bunch of RPG elements such as levels, skills, both active and passive, and a gear system. This is where Mutant Year Zero could have earned a degree of replay value, but there isn’t enough depth to any of these systems. Each time you level up, you earn a mutation point which can be spent on anything from passive abilities such as extra chance to crit versus certain enemy types or moving stealthily between cover. Active abilities include an extra action point or briefly hovering in the air to get a better angle on enemies. Once you’ve used an active ability you can’t use it again until you’ve got a certain amount of kills.
The mutations are disappointing. Given that some characters can grow wings, you’d think they’d end up with more interesting abilities to show for it. There’s a lot of overlap as well, with multiple characters having the ability to hover in the air while shooting for example.
The level numbers themselves are fairly pointless. They don’t really mean anything. You can see how many hits an enemy will take to go down by looking at their health bar and your own damage numbers and your own defense is dictated largely by your gear although you can dump some mutation points into health upgrades if you like. Enemies that are a much higher level than you aren’t unbeatable just because you are a lower level. It’s all about the gear. If the enemy levels were removed entirely it would make little difference.
There isn’t much customization available in the gear system either. There are limited weapon types and, even though finding weapons is rare, I still managed to get a bunch of duplicates. Same with armor. Weapon mods can help with range or critical hits, or offer bonuses like the chance to set an enemy on fire or stun a robot. That’s about it. There are no armor mods at all.
Bearing in mind how much loot is lying around in the environment, it’s a shame the economy isn’t a little more vibrant. You can’t do anything with unwanted armor and the shop only sells consumables or items you likely already have. There are also niggles like not being able to dismantle all of your weapons because you have to keep a primary weapon on each team member even if they aren’t in your squad. All the trading takes place in the Ark which is unfortunately just a static menu instead of an explorable environment which would have gone a long way to making the world feel a little more alive.
Combat is challenging and enjoyable enough that I briefly started a second playthrough on hard. I wanted to master the combat challenge and solve the puzzles properly instead of brute forcing my way through them. I got through a few encounters and then it hit me just how similar the experience would be the second time around. There weren’t any cool new mutations to play with or better weapons to acquire. So I stopped playing. My first playthrough lasted fifteen hours and it was decent. I’ll keep an eye out for a sequel or an expansion, but at the moment, Mutant Year Zero doesn’t have enough worldbuilding or interesting variety in its upgrades for my tastes. I doubt I’ll ever finish that second playthrough.