Carving Its Own Niche
What if a boar-man and a duck-man partnered up in a bleak post-human landscape? This isn’t some bizarro version of Looney Tunes, but the actual premise of Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden. The debut title of Swedish studio The Bearded Ladies, it was announced back in February with a cinematic reveal trailer. It presented a team of mutant anthropomorphic animals wielding guns as they explore the remnants of human civilization and ward off robotic threats. A gameplay trailer followed in March, and the release date is set for December 4. I had the chance to play about two hours of Mutant, and these are my first impressions.
Smack-dab in the middle of a patch of woods, I took control of Bormin and Dux. It’s easy to guess who’s who I’m sure. The lovable critters are stalkers in the Zone. Sounds familiar? It should. It looks more like a tip of the hat to S.T.A.L.K.E.R. rather than shameless imitation. In any case, they are out on a seemingly mundane foray for scraps. Bormin doubles as a gravelly and dismal narrator, a kind of post-human Epic Voice Guy. Dux is more of a daffy little bastard, a comic relief foil in contrast with Bormin. The interplay between the two characters fits the setting.
They move and explore the levels from a top-down real-time mode at first. When they encounter hostiles you get to turn-based combat that will inevitably remind most players of XCOM. The influence is obviously there, but Mutant is decidedly simpler and doesn’t feel bogged down by complex details. It’s a clear and humble quality in an indie game that couldn’t support the cumbersome maintenance of a full-on XCOM clone. The combat feels effective and polished, and that’s more than you can ask from a beta.
Our beastly heroes soon find themselves searching for Hammon, a Gearhead who ventures into the northernmost area of the Zone. It’s a dangerous place by all accounts, and Dux isn’t eager to follow, but Bormin took him under his command anyway. They soon meet Selma, a woman who seems to have some sort of mutant power that can change her skin to what looks like snake scales. These three characters are the foundation for the squad that will probably add other characters along the way.
Before you go adventuring, you get to visit the Ark, a looming haven for people and good mutants. There you can fix and modify your weapons, trade artifacts and get punch-drunk in a tavern of sorts. You can also visit the Elder, who will advise you and give you the mission. There’s a lot in the Ark that seems like very boilerplate post-apocalyptic fare, and that’s fine. I do hope the game ventures beyond that kind of generic platitude to deliver something more interesting and unique.
Since it’s based on a Swedish tabletop RPG also known as Mutant, first released in 1984, there’s some risk that it could devolve into that brand of retro-cyberpunk. The RPG elements are very light, and the focus seems to be on the adventure-like narrative. The hand-drawn cutscenes are elegant, with Bormin’s voice-over monologues on top. There’s a compelling atmosphere in the levels as the squad explores them with their flashlights on. The banter between Bormin and Dux is quite funny sometimes.
There were only a couple of glitches that I noticed, with most of the game seeming solid. I found some of the enemy animations a bit weird-looking, especially when they were jumping or getting behind cover. The transition from real-time to turn-based seems very fluid, but some of those animations during combat looked off. The zoom-in when you’re about to shoot an enemy looks pretty good, especially in wooded areas. It's a welcome change from dilapidated ruins and concrete jungles.
The only hostiles I encountered were called ghouls, but not like Fallout ghouls. They’re more like semi-intelligent deformed mutants, and some of their dialogue was kind of silly. There is a 'ghoul shaman' whose job is to call on reinforcements with a horn. I thought that was kind of cool, it's a kind of unique mashup that's missing in many post-apocalyptic games, a subtle mix with medieval fantasy elements.
Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is probably not a good enough fix for XCOM aficionados, but it just might carve its own niche. It's one that openly borrows from post-apocalyptic games and tropes, whether S.T.A.L.K.E.R. or Fallout, while still remaining its own beast. If it manages to stand out for its world and characters, most players will be willing to overlook the simple gameplay. There is just enough in the way of inventory and character management to keep RPG buffs engaged, and just enough of exploration and narrative to keep adventure gamers intrigued.
TechRaptor previewed Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden on PC via Steam with a code provided by the developer.