Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden Review – A ducking good challenge

Platforms:
PS4Xbox OnePC
Released:
December 4, 2018
Publisher:
Funcom
Developer:
The Bearded Ladies Consulting

Review

Turn-based tactics is a genre that, if done right, rewards players for thinking ahead, executing strong strategic moves and analyzing the battlefield for the best outcomes possible. Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden might be a game you haven’t heard much about, but it takes the genre popularised by Final Fantasy Tactics, X-COM, Phantom Doctrine and more recently the much loved indie Into the Breach, and combines it with some stealth and exploration to make for a world that feels more connected and interesting to explore. These mutants might be witty, but they definitely pack a punch in this clever strategy title.

Mutant Year Zero is set in a post-apocalyptic future, the main characters being Bormin, a gruff boar with a hardened exterior, and Dux, a duck with an attitude. Part of a group of mutants known as Stalkers, they live in a place called The Ark, one of the only societies left in civilisation. This acts as your base that you can return to at any point to gear up, purchase upgrades and collect new gear to aide you in combat. You’ll meet more characters along the way that can be added into your party of mutants, and the banter between them is always pretty enjoyable.

Apart from the ongoing dialogue, the narrative is relatively loose. While this may be intentional, there is promise of something deeper going on in the world that isn’t really properly delved into. There are a lot of questions that don’t get answered and character motivations don’t always add up. Still, I appreciated exploring what the world had become without humans in it, finding trinkets from the past and hearing what the cast thought about them (an iPod with an apple etched in the side they feel must have been used to determine the ripeness of fruit).

The key difference between Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden and other turn-based tactics games it will ultimately be compared to is the fact that you don’t just simply launch into a combat scenario from a home-base or a menu. Instead, you explore the world, searching for scraps of metal, weapon parts and other items that can be used to forge upgrades. The main questline points you in a certain direction, but there are distractions and other unique areas to explore that are worthwhile too, to gain experience and see some more lore.

This  interconnected open-ish world provides more context about what happened when the world ended. Campsites have been left abandoned, tunnels are filled with deserted cars and trucks, while bodies lay strewn about the forest, some with notes left explaining their story. While the core plot may plod along, these smaller touches to the world-building I appreciated, along with the commentary from Bormin, Dux and the others trying to make sense out of what happened.

More importantly, the way this structure of gameplay impacts battles is what makes the game so successful. When you encounter enemies in the world, they won’t spot you unless you wander directly into their area of sight. Also, you’re able to split your party up and have them take multiple positions without “using a turn” to move from spot to spot on the grid. This means you can use each party member to create perfect ambush scenarios and really catch your opponents off guard.

What I love about this system is it truly allows you to strategize and choose your spots with complete freedom of movement. Only once you’ve been seen (or you ambush) does it enter into a combat phase with the grid-like battlefield, but even then, you don’t have to activate all of your party members at that point. If you choose, the unseen members can stay hidden, allowing for another layer of tactics where you can activate them when you choose. This real-time stealth approach  completely changed my view of the genre. No longer are you stuck to rigid commands or specific distances that you move from turn-to-turn as you figure out your position. It speeds things up and then slows down right when it’s supposed to.

“This real-time stealth approach  completely changed my view of the genre.”

Once you enter into combat, things take a relatively familiar turn for anyone who has played games of this style before. There are standard weapon attacks, throwables, overwatch and defensive positions, along with a range of different abilities (or “mutations” here) that change things up, such as super strong abilities, buffs and other modifiers. Some destructible cover is a nice addition that means the landscape can literally change at any given time, and walking the fine line between exciting and frustrating is ever so delicate, making tense battles all the more nail-biting.

Sure, there are frustrating elements in Mutant Year Zero such as when you have a 75% chance of connecting on a vital shot but your character still manages to miss. That’s just a trope of the genre though, and the RNG Gods don’t always smile upon you. Other annoyances like enemies that pull ridiculous strong special abilities out of nowhere to surprise you can make initial battles with them frustrating, prompting a party wipe and a reset, but finding the right combination of positioning and skills is incredibly satisfying and you do genuinely feel super clever when you’ve managed to navigate and win a battle where the odds are initially stacked against you.

The Bottom Line

With an incredibly refined tactical engine melded cohesively with real-time exploration and stealth, Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is a slick combination that is interesting and rewarding for strategy fans. There could have been a bit more of a hook with the core narrative, but the elements of world-building in a post apocalyptic landscape through the eyes of witty, well-written mutants still makes the journey one worth playing through. It’s certainly challenging at times, but successfully learning and nailing a battle sequence after numerous attempts is immensely satisfying – just make ducking sure you’re prepared for a tough fight.