Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden Review
A game about mutants mutates the turn-based tactics genre.
Much like its half-human, half-animal protagonists, Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is a hybrid. It looks to push the grid-based tactics of games like XCOM 2 and Phantom Doctrine to their next logical step by incorporating stealth and pre-fight planning into the experience. Unlike its counterparts, however, Mutant Year Zero deftly cuts some of the strategy game abstraction by alternating between exploring areas in real-time and the familiar tactical combat that you probably already know and love.
The result distills the essence of turn-based strategy games that have come before into something more intense. While it has an RPG-style progression, Mutant Year Zero is truly a series of tactical exercises. Having the right gear, the right plan and, honestly, the right luck all matter far more than your level or your opponents’. It’s tough, cerebral, and if you’re willing to learn how to play its way, pretty damn satisfying.
Adapted from a 2014 Swedish pen-and-paper RPG, Mutant Year Zero puts you into an interesting, albeit cliché, post-apocalypse where most of humanity has died, and the world has become a gigantic ruin. You control a squad of mutant stalkers — modified humans with special powers who are tough enough to scavenge “the zone,” as it’s called, for supplies to support a settlement of human survivors called the Ark. Despite the fact that it pulls from a world with plenty of source material — Mutant Year Zero, the RPG, is a prequel to the long-running Mutant franchise — Road to Eden does not do much with its aesthetically interesting world.
I would have loved to know more about the mutants.
Don’t get me wrong: There’s a ton of world-building — exposition extolled through in-game dialogue and non-animated cutscenes, text, and audio diaries strewn about the world — but it mostly helps advance Mutant Year Zero’s Horizon: Zero Dawn-style unraveling of how humanity destroyed itself. That story, sadly, never feels vital, even when it becomes tied to your squad’s own mission. It’s a grab bag of society crumbling clichés. I haven’t spent any time with the original pen-and-paper game, so I can’t speak to whether or not it’s successful as an act of fan service, but Road to Eden’s repetitive overgrown scrapyards, cannibal marauders and rogue robots feel like a fairly bland version of the Mutant mythos relative to what fans have been imagining for years.
There is a kernel of interesting storytelling and design in your squad, the Mutants. Your interesting characters like Dux, the smart-aleck half-man, half-Mallard; and Farrow, a tough half-woman half-fox with a British accent; drew me in even with limited speaking time and only a broad backstory to flesh them out. I would have loved to know more about the mutants and seen more characters like them, but what’s there was enough to keep me in sync with the story the whole way through.
You spend most of Mutant Year Zero exploring various portions of “the zone,” figuring out how to sneak past groups of enemies, or sneaking around to get the jump on them. The world is broken up into large areas (in any other game I’d call them zones). Your squad of up to three characters roams large swaths of old ruins, searching for scrap to trade and keeping an eye out for anything that might want to fight.
Though it feels simple and intuitive, the stealth gameplay feels far more versatile than what you’d expect from an RPG. You can alternate between walking with a flashlight, which lets you see further but also draws more attention, and sneaking, which keeps you hidden but opens the door for you to bump into things. If you’re close to getting seen, you can hide at any cover point, such as a tree or a wall, and enemies won’t see even if they walk right next to you.
It just feels natural.
This becomes crucial when you’re setting up an ambush. With the push a button, your squad of three can split up, allowing you to move each character individually. From there, you can hide them in the best positions to surround a group while maximizing each character’s unique skills. This two-stage system — real-time stealth, followed by turn-based combat — makes setting up combat scenarios easier and quicker than games like Phantom Doctrine and XCOM 2, where you may spend multiple turns edging up to enemy territory. It just feels natural.
Planning for a big fight starts even before you put your team into place, though. You are almost always outnumbered and outgunned, so figuring out how to dismantle a group takes quite a bit of cunning. The areas are large, so if you take your time, and scope out enemy patrol patterns, you can often isolate a single enemy or pockets of them away from the main group. To clear out any area, you need plans on plans on plans.
You also need some luck. The moment you fire a gun, enemies within a certain range will hear you. That range is not always entirely clear, so there is a bit of guesswork involved. There are awareness indicators when you’re in stealth mode, so it’s not hard to avoid detection before combat starts, but you do not get indicators as to how far the sound of your gunshots travels. Over time, you develop a feel for it, but you’re also going to do a lot of saving and reloading when you wind up accidentally picking a fight you can’t win.
It’s hard to overstate how much stealth factors into every encounter. Though combat is Mutant Year Zero’s main draw, you are rarely forced into big battles. In most areas, your goal is to simply reach the entrance to the next location. If you skip combat, you won’t get the gear you need to take down enemies further down the line, but if you don’t see a way to beat a group, you can often get around them and come back, preferably when you have better gear and abilities.
When you finally pull the trigger and start a big fight you’d better know how you’re going to win it.
When you finally pull the trigger and start a big fight — which is any encounter with more than two guys — you’d better know how you’re going to win it. In keeping with its survivalist post-apocalyptic motif, resources are scarce and life is fleeting. Even Bormin, your half-boar “tank” character, can’t take more than three strong hits, so you need to finish fights fast. Like XCOM 2, every character gets two actions per turn, and it’s important that you use as many of those actions as possible to do damage or impede your opponents’ ability to fight back.
Each of your team members gets two active abilities and a passive perk called mutations, which push them into different specialties. Some of them, like the “run and gun” ability that lets you move twice and then shoot, will feel familiar to XCOM fans. Other options, like the ability to give a character “moth wings” that lets them shoot from the air and then land in a high position, feel unique. When armed with mutations and equipment that complement each other, an efficient three-mutant team can mow through a group of 3-5 enemies in just a few turns. Efficiency is important, though, because you will probably lose a drawn out gunfight.
For better or worse, Mutant Year Zero seems built with save-scumming in mind. To win, you need things to go right most of the time, and things won’t always work out. Someone on your squad will miss a high-percentage shot, or an enemy will use an unforeseen ability. In case it isn’t clear, this game is very hard. Even on Normal, the lowest difficulty, you will likely lose a lot.
As with most good strategy games, winning makes you feel smart.
As with most good strategy games, though, winning makes you feel smart. Pulling off a plan that deconstructs all of an enemy’s advantages and leads to victory, especially a decisive one, feels very good.
Between the sneaking and the fighting, there is a small amount of RPG-style progression and maintenance in Mutant Year Zero, including a leveling system, guns and armor with upgradable stats, and a skill tree that unlocks the aforementioned mutations for each character. These systems are very streamlined — your characters level up as a team, and each character’s statistics are all very practical. For example, you can see how much damage your character can do, rather than looking at strength statistic.
And yet, it eventually becomes clear that some of the RPG elements butt heads with Mutant Year Zero’s stealth and strategy gameplay. Though the Skill tree isn’t exactly large, each character can only equip three abilities at a time, out of eight total on the tree. By the final series of areas, I had already acquired all the skills I planned to use, which made further progression feel pointless when you consider that the only benefit of increasing your level seems to be earning more points to buy new mutations. You can get minor upgrades to health, accuracy, and movement rate by advancing the skill tree, but much of your evolution over time comes from scavenging improved armor and weapons after each fight.
I found that the RPG elements — particularly the leveling system — ultimately got in the way of my learning the ins and outs of Mutant Year Zero’s systems. After years of playing RPGs of all shapes and sizes, I had a certain understanding of what levels mean and, more specifically, how a disparity between my level and my opponents’ might affect my chances of winning. Unlearning that shorthand took a little while. Once I did, everything started to make much more sense, but I can’t help but wonder if ditching experience points in favor of a system that integrated the squad’s progress into the stealth, scavenging, and strategy systems would have tightened up the entire experience.