The post-apocalyptic genre has a tendency to reinvent the wheel. Encountering the vestiges of Humanity’s Wake, the dwellers of these settings are often puzzled by the Old Ones and their technologies or lifestyles. However, this is not only overused, but it's also seldom well implemented. In my preview, I hoped that Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden would rise above these worn tropes and delve deeper into the underlying ideas of what I believe is a promising setting. The final result doesn’t quite hit the target, but this is nonetheless a competent tactical RPG with original stealth mechanics.
Based on the eponymous tabletop RPG first published in 1984, Mutant Year Zero takes place in an alternate future Sweden. It doesn’t tell you that from the start, but there are words and images scattered throughout the levels that confirm it. Some could argue that this helps to set the game apart from popular U.S.-based post-apocalyptic settings, but it’s really not that distinctive. It doesn’t help that the roster of main characters feels like a mishmash with boilerplate post-apocalyptic identities, some complete with British-Irish accents that come across as caricatures.
Tasked with finding a man named Hammon, the anthropomorphic mutants Bormin and Dux become your spirit animals. Bormin is a shotgun-toting badass boar with a gravelly voice who doubles as the narrator. Dux is a wisecracking duck rocking a crossbow. Later, the crew finds other mutants who are not quite as memorable: Selma, Farrow, and Magnus. They're all stalkers, exploring woods full of gigantic brambles and the dilapidated ruins of the Zone. This is clearly an homage to S.T.A.L.K.E.R., though some might not see it that way. It does work as an effective premise, even though it’s obviously unoriginal.
Bormin and Dux hail from the Ark, a haven for mutants and normies alike. It’s where they receive their missions, and where they can modify weapons, trade junk, and receive perks through artifacts. It's quite basic RPG party management, but at least the vendors and crafters have some personality. You can only modify your weapons in the Ark, so make sure the mods will suit your upcoming battles. However, since there aren’t any survival elements, you can fast travel to the Ark back and forth without losing any resources.
Most of the game you'll be in this loop of level exploration, taking out hostiles and reporting back to the Ark. That’s what keeps you going, the compelling turn-based combat. It’s simpler than what some might expect if they’re hoping for an XCOM fix, but it's a charming simplicity. The RPG system feels quite old school, featuring manageable stats and balanced numbers.
What sets Mutant apart is its stealth ambush mechanics, without which most battles are almost impossible. If you try to bum-rush the hostiles, they'll take you out easily with a few hits. The transition from real-time stealth to turn-based combat is seamless, but make sure to position your mutants where it suits them best. That way you can thin the herd of hostiles little by little. For instance, Dux has a passive skill that gives him a critical bonus from a high ground. So, place him on top of a platform and make that bonus count. Bormin can knock out a hostile for a couple of turns. Unleash him into a powerful enemy, not just any loser with a gun.
You can mix and match skills or mutations to suit a particular set of hostiles. At a certain point, you’ll encounter only robots. Some of the mutants have the skill to disable those robots for a turn, which helps to take them down faster. There are also weapon mods that give you a 30-50% chance to disable robots, as well as EMP grenades. You’ll find armor and helmets that give you a specific defense edge against certain types of hostiles, but not against all of them. This is how the game keeps you on edge, making sure you assess each encounter in advance to equip the skills and gear that are most suitable.
Once you grasp these systems, Mutant becomes quite easy, and I think I actually cheesed the stealth to a fault. In the later stages, I was using silent weapons with anti-robot mods. With that setup, I managed to take out most robots without ever taking a hit. Even when I was up against a Mimir Z600, a colossal mech, I could just shoot it over and over with my silent weapons, keeping it in a short-circuit loop. In one particular case, the Z600 was just a few steps away from other hostiles, but they never noticed it collapsing and exploding. In that sense, the combat lost some of the edge in those final stages.
There are other nitpicks and inconsistencies that turn-based aficionados might quibble with. When you set up an overwatch you don’t see what the mutants are actually watching. Apparently, it’s a 360 degrees radius, and it doesn’t matter which way the character is facing. Also, sometimes you split up your party and one of them stays on the other side of the level. Then you regroup and they magically appear with the group. The stealth also only seems to count for the specific mutant you happen to be moving. The others can lag behind, and they don't alert the hostiles even when they walk right into their radius. I don’t think these are bugs as much as careless design. The AI seems rudimentary overall, the hostiles only follow a predetermined route, and they never actually chase the mutants.
Another thing I noticed is that you can’t manipulate the odds. Let’s say you have a 50% chance to hit a target and you miss. There’s no point in reloading and trying again, you’ll always miss. It looks like the game sets the odds even before you make the first move. There’s no way around it. You can try to increase those odds through special gear or positioning, but you can't manipulate them by reloading. This is a great design that manages to prevent the pull of save-scumming.
There’s a lot of potential in exploring this post-human setting. A lot of interesting ideas that could be developed further. As mentioned before, I’ve found that the cast of Mutant never ventures beyond those tired old tropes as they encounter the remnants of the Ancients. At first, when you have to find Hammon there’s some of that Heart of Darkness atmosphere as you venture deeper and deeper into the Zone. Once you do find him, it feels underwhelming. The final stretch might disappoint some, complete with a predictable plot twist.
There are no proper quests, but there is one level where you can make a choice when a psycho cult leader asks you to retrieve a key. You can give him the key back as he asked, or you can explore his compound and use the key to open a door, finding out what he’s hiding. That was the closest Mutant ever came to a deeper, more nuanced brand of storytelling where the player is involved more than just going along for the ride. Even then, the resolution was kind of lost on the overall narrative, and there weren’t any consequences to the choice. I don’t think this is a case of lost opportunity as much as budget limitations.
Apart from the occasional hammy accent, the voice acting and the soundtrack are nothing to sneer at. I really liked the art direction, and the graphics look great for a top-down game, especially on the highest setting. I did experience some odd glitches, frame rate fluctuations, and one crash. Apart from that, I have no complaints, it's a sturdy enough product.
Warts and all, Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is a solid debut by indie studio The Bearded Ladies, composed by some veteran designers of Hitman and PAYDAY. Mutant stands out for its gripping and original twist on stealth with turn-based combat. Although I did expect more depth in terms of narrative, maybe it was wiser to keep it simple. There are occasional glimpses of a great game where the sum of its parts in level design and atmosphere coalesce into a compelling experience.
- Original Stealth Mechanics
- Fun Turn-Based Combat
- Compelling Atmosphere
- Rewarding Level Design
- Overused Narrative Tropes
- Some Exploitable Mechanics
- Doesn't Explore The Setting Enough