Based on a Swedish tabletop role playing game, Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden might not be the most obvious choice to convert to a game given its relatively low key exposure outside Scandinavia, yet it’s a perfect subject matter and one that The Bearded Ladies recognised as a developer. Comprising of talent formerly from IO Interactive, and creative support from designer of Payday, the studio have taken to bringing the ravaged future landscape to life whilst keeping to the principals of the game – turn-based combat. It might not be the most obvious go to genre for a game about mutated ducks and scavenging wastelands, so does it fit the bill?
Set in a post-apocalyptic future where humans have been wiped out through a combination of disease and war, the few civilised ones that remain are mostly holed up in the Ark – a refuge where the last survivors barter, trade and relax before heading out into the Zone to explore old ruins and scavenge up whatever hasn’t already been stripped down and taken. The task of heading out in search of scrap and treasure is given to the Stalkers who are humans that have mutated into hybrids of animals and developed a host of weird and wonderful powers. Out in the Zone they have to use all their cunning and stealth to stay one step ahead of the ghouls who are intent on wiping out the last true settlement in the region… or is it? Enter our two heroes Dux and Bormin.
Playing as a duo, the duck and the boar (can you guess which is named which?), the aim is to explore the Zone surrounding the Ark to find Hammon – the only human alive with the technical knowledge to keep things operating. He’s gone missing, and Dux and Bormin will have to travel the land, following his trail and discovering more of the ancient world as the go. They’re also keeping an eye out for a way of finding the mythical Eden – a supposed sanctuary in this ruined world. Each visited location on the map is a distinct, self-contained area that holds secrets, salvage and enemies to encounter, and almost act as individual levels to conquer. Once they’ve been cleared of combatants they remain that way for the rest of the game, making this RPG unique in that it doesn’t rely on grinding fights to create busy work. There’s a set number of enemies of varying difficulties around the world map, and they all need taking down to be able to level up enough to see things through to the end.
Combat is handled in a similar vein to XCOM with each set of characters (your squad and the enemy) each being granted two moves per member within their allocated turn. The actions taken within those moves are dependent on which character is selected, what skill set they have, and how they’ve been upgraded, but largely it’s travel, shoot, wait and special. Use all the moves up and it’s time for the opposing side to do their thing. Rinse and repeat until all of the enemy have been eliminated, or Dux, Bormin or both have been taken out. The latter is a very real possibility in every encounter because of the way the levelling system works. With the fights being limited, and only one or two per map location, the main players are only levelled up enough to face the next opponents and so things always have a hint of jeopardy about them. One false move or missed critical hit and it can result in game over. Of course, the chance of failure early on is relatively low as the mechanics are doled out, but it soon increases the difficulty and number of enemies to tackle, and that’s where the stealth system comes into play.
Dux, Bormin and whichever additional party members they recruit (there are several, but only one can be active at a time), travel the isometric world with standard movement controls. Left stick to move, right stick for camera swinging, face buttons to interact; it’s designed for exploring the environments and trudging through the Zone. Come up against an enemy though and it’s not necessarily straight into a brutal cover shooting fest, there’s the option of splitting the party up and picking prime ambush points before launching into an attack. Hitting circle puts torches away and causes each character to creep around unnoticed as long as they stay out of the enemies sensing area (a band of red around them), opening up the options of hiding behind barriers or up against trees to either get a cheeky jump on a group of ghouls, or even pick off isolated ones so the rest don’t notice, and make the job easier. It works well for scoping out encampments and figuring out a strategy instead of just ploughing headlong in and deciding on a plan on the fly. It’s also essential for going up against some of the more unique bad guys because that can make or break a scenario.
Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden introduces a variety of enemy types away from the usual cannon fodder. Ghouls like the Shaman which summons multiple reinforcements, the Tank whose heavy attacks destroy cover, and Polis robots that stun the heroes and lock them in a life sapping taser-like embrace for several turns, amongst many others, all provide a challenge and require specific methods, skills and weapons to neutralise them. Knowing whether to keep a conservative distance or get up close and personal is key, as is understanding the hit chance and critical damage potential. These aren’t complex hidden systems here, they’re designed to be as simple as possible – there’s either no chance to hit, 25%, 50%, 75% or 100%, and that is shown when a player character cycles through each of the enemies on screen. Weapon types influence that figure and as expected a shotgun won’t manage the same range as a rifle, so each member of the party is able to carry two firearms and three grenades which can be swapped between at will… just remember to reload at the right points.
Standard combat is enhanced with the specific skill trees Dux, Bormin and their crew have. Most are variations on the same theme (or even duplicates), but some are worth investing in. For example, Dux has the ability to fly to either gain high ground or take out troublesome ghouls behind cover. He can also shoot out leg joints to stun a foe in place for a couple of turns, or guarantee a critical hit at the expense of accuracy. Each special ability comes with a “kill” cooldown, so can only be used again once the requisite number of kills have been made. With a wide variety on offer alongside standard movement range and HP upgrades, there’s some real consideration to make when deciding which to invest in. Road to Eden ensures there aren’t enough skill points available to develop everything in the tree though. Much like it’s a bit stingy with its scrap and weapon parts which are the currencies for buying new gear or adding more damage to the guns. Most of the cash is spent on ensuring there are enough medikits on hand that the comparatively expensive new hardware doesn’t really get a look in. Fortunately there are a few loot options out in the Zone that will help ease that sense of never having enough, and the ability to fast travel anywhere at any time really supports getting loadouts right.
Presentation overall is very nice, the decaying and overgrown world is well realised within each map location, and there’s always something interesting to have a look at. Certain areas are shrouded in fog, others are bathed in light, and plenty are in darkness, and all add to the tone and feeling the aesthetic aims for. Likewise, Dux, Bormin and the majority of other squad members are distinctive and genuinely charming – there’s such detail built into them visually on the small scale, and added to with the voicework, that they endear themselves almost immediately. The letdown is probably the audio, particularly at the start of levels where it chops in and out, creating moments of silence that makes you wonder if the game has crashed. It’s not overly memorable, even though there’s supposed to be a dynamic system underpinning it. On the off chance that things will go wrong, there are some good quality of life features with the autosave kicking in after each map load and successful confrontation, and if you remember, saves can be made between combat turns so it encourages some experimentation without a huge risk to progress.
Turn-based strategy games aren’t my go to genre, nor are isometric RPGs, but there’s something different about Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden that’s compelling. It’s held my interest long after most in this vein would have had me reaching for the power switch, and that’s despite the difficulty spikes and perceived unfairness of some of the combat moves. Usually it would be rage quitting territory when you’ve had an enemy in point blank range and manage to miss with a shotgun, then on the next turn get taken down by them shooting through a solid wall. Strangely it doesn’t make me feel like that, and that’s probably down to the tactical use of saves and the variety of approaches on offer. There’s even support for the hardcore with a permadeath option that locks out saving and doesn’t allow any mistakes to be made. It’s a well considered, charming and inclusive game that treats newcomers with respect and doesn’t demand knowledge of years of lore, yet balances that with challenging gameplay and a truly likeable set of lead characters. It’s well worth a butchers.
A PS4 review copy of Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden was provided by the Funcom PR team and the game is available now on PC, Xbox One and PS4.