Sometime last year, I decided to revisit Fallout 2. It had been many years since I had first played it, and in truth I never finished the story, so I looked forward to revisiting a classic example of a genre I love. Then I got killed in the tutorial – which is when I remembered that those old RPGs were actually pretty difficult. I recalled this occasion about two hours into Mutant Year Zero: Road To Eden.
My first clue that I was headed for some old-school, no-holds-barred ruthlessness should have been the difficulty screen at the start, which ranged from “Normal” to “Very Hard”. The warning signs may not have sunk in at that point, but I certainly got the message after watching my ragtag team of mutants get smashed into the irradiated dirt for the umpteenth time.
That said, the fact is that I kept coming back for more – and not just because I had a review to write.
Mutant Year Zero: Road To Eden (or Mutant Year Zero as I will insist on calling it from now on) is the latest title from The Bearded Ladies Consulting, a development team based in Malmö, Sweden. Based on a pen-and-paper RPG, the game is set after the fall of human civilisation, which is brought about by a veritable smorgasbord of apocalypses. At the outset you’re put in control of a couple of anthropomorphic animal mutants by the name of Bormir (a boar) and Dux (a duck). The unimaginatively named duo live in The Ark, seemingly the last bastion of civilisation in the otherwise savage wasteland. They make up a team of Stalkers, groups of scavenger-warriors who explore the wasteland in search of supplies and fight back its less-than-friendly inhabitants.
Not all is well in The Ark though. One of the Stalker teams has gone off in search of a mythical haven called Eden. As the leader of that team happens to be the only person who knows how to maintain and repair the machinery The Ark relies on, your team is sent out after them. This requires you to venture forth, explore and fight through interconnected areas of the wasteland, which are uncovered as you go.
Outside combat, the game functions largely like a traditional RPG. Your party of characters level up as they gain experience and each have their own skill trees. New gear and weapons can be recovered from the wasteland or bought at The Ark. Additional player characters can be recruited as you progress, but your active team is capped at three. This is quite flexible though, as team members and equipment can be swapped out on the fly, except during combat.
Combat itself takes the form of the tried and tested XCOM formula. Action points, half and full cover, and hit percentages are all present and correct. It is largely pretty standard, but the game does a good job of making it very clear which enemies can be hit and the chance of doing so before you move a character, which is most welcome.
Mutant Year Zero’s twist on the idea is that it encourages stealth and pre-combat scouting. In theory, if you can isolate stragglers, you can use silenced weapons to take them down without alerting their friends. The big problem I found with this is that the silenced weapons available aren’t really punchy enough to get the job done. Once you’re a few hours in, only the weakest enemies have low enough health for stealth kills to be an option. Even then, reliable “stealth kills” involve your squad running up to the target one at a time and shooting them in the face.
Scouting however, is very much a good idea. I don’t know if I mentioned this, but Mutant Year Zero’s combat is quite unforgiving. In all honesty, I started out on hard but dropped it to normal pretty early on. I am not sorry. On hard difficulty your squad only recover half of their health after combat. The only way I could restore full health was with a medipack, which are limited in number. As a result, I found myself frequently going into fights under strength. It got to a point where I just couldn’t progress any further. That’s not to say it’s impossible, as I’m certain it’s not. Perhaps I was just falling into habits I developed playing XCOM rather than adapting.
Once I dropped the difficulty down a notch though, I started having fun. I still found it a challenge, and there were times I got my arse kicked anyway, but I felt like it was at least manageable again.
This is just as well, because Mutant Year Zero has a lot going for it. For starters, it looks lovely. There are some particularly nice lighting effects in the sunnier environments, and I like the way items glow in the torchlight in the darker places. All the areas are unique and specifically designed, meaning multiple tactical options are built in to each encounter. There’s a good sense of humour running throughout too, and some of the item descriptions gave me a chuckle. There may be one too many jokes based on the “duck sounds like fuck” premise for my liking, though.
Also, the fact that Mutant Year Zero is a genuine challenge is actually quite refreshing. I may have suffered, but the benefit was a very real sense of satisfaction with every victory.
One other minor thing worth noting is a slightly odd decision relating to the controls. On PC, outside combat the mouse spins the camera around, with movement controlled by the WASD keys. In combat though, WASD spins the camera and the mouse is used for movement! Using a gamepad negates all of this, and the game does feel designed with that in mind.
Although there’s enough world-building done via cut scenes and notes to give you the required context for the story, I would’ve preferred if there was a bit more depth. While there is some dialogue between your squad mates, it’s quite limited. You get the impression that Bormir is a gruff, serious leader type and Dux is a wise-cracking (wise-quacking?) cynic, but there’s no real development of that. This is largely because almost all the NPCs you meet are too busy trying to kill you to engage in much chit-chat. While there are a handful of characters in The Ark, there’s no real interaction except for buying things from them. For what is at least in part a role-playing game, there isn’t much of a chance to actually role play.
Essentially, Mutant Year Zero is a mutant hybrid of old Fallout and XCOM, without really playing like either of them. It is clearly designed to be a challenging experience, and as far as I’m concerned it achieves that aim. Although I struggled with the harder difficulties, it never felt arbitrarily punishing. Tough, yes, but not deliberately unfair. Maybe if I restarted now I’d find it a little easier.
Also, there’s enough good stuff outside of combat to keep you going. There are other mysteries that are hinted at as you play, too. For example, just why are Bormir and Dux the only animal mutants in The Ark? The road to Eden is littered with such encouraging breadcrumbs that inspire you onwards. There’s always another discovery or revelation waiting.
Overall, Mutant Year Zero is a tough but engaging tactical RPG. It’s got lots of potential for multiple playthroughs, too. If that sounds interesting to you, I recommend you check it out.
Mutant Year Zero: Road To Eden is available for PS4, Xbox One and PC. We reviewed the PC version.
Disclosure statement: Review code for Mutant Year Zero was provided by Evolve PR. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.
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