If you’ll take a moment to look upon the cover art for Mutant Year Zero, then yes, you may notice it features large anthropomorphic animals wearing clothes and brandishing firearms. Just roll with it. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s delve into why I think this is one of the most lukewarm games I’ve played all year.
Mutant Year Zero is set years after an apocalypse has rendered most of the Earth uninhabitable. Humanity holds out in a fortified city built above the atmosphere known as The Ark. When supplies for The Ark get low, a team of mutants is sent out on expeditions to find food, medicine, and anything else needed. Over the course of the game, you will control these characters – each with their own personalities and cynical perspectives of the world – as they journey across the hazardous Zone.
For the most part, the game combines exploration with turn-based combat. While venturing the Zone you will be moving in a real-time space, whereas enemy encounters will transform the game into a turn-based shooter, where each faction takes turns to use their units in the fight, giving you time to carefully plan each move. If you’ve ever played the XCOM series, the structure of these sequences feels very similar to that: your team members can make a certain amount of moves per turn and the accuracy and strength of their attacks is determined by a roll of the dice. What sets this apart from other games is how you can set up ambushes in real-time. Avoiding enemy patrols to find a good position will benefit your attacks and catch them unaware. You can even hide some of your units to use as a surprise attack later on.
Upon each return to the Ark you’ll be able to fix up weapons and buy new equipment. Finding pre-apocalypse artifacts on your travels will also allow you to trade them for team upgrades. It’s wise to do this as much as you can early on, as the enemies you face will become really difficult to fight the further you venture out. After each enemy encounter, your team will also gain experience points to mutate and gain abilities. This includes enhancements that work passively such as increased health and higher critical hit chances, as well as completely new abilities that strengthen that character’s usefulness in combat. The curve of upgrades feels smooth, as your team begins the game underpowered but slowly become unstoppable death machines as the story reaches its conclusion.
It’s worth mentioning that the game’s difficulty can feel unfair at the beginning. Your first few hours in Mutant Year Zero are going to be tough, as low-level enemies pack a huge punch and your characters feel weak. This isn’t helped by the fact the game’s economy plays heavily against you. The Ark uses scrap as a currency which can be found out in the Zone. It’s worth going away from the beaten path in search of these hidden scrap depots, as many are located in concealed points of interest. The problem arises from the fact that med-kits are crucial to surviving many combat scenarios, but such items are expensive in the shop and uncommon to find in the Zone. When playing on a higher difficulty, nearly all of your purchases are on these kits. It’s not fun.
The game gets easier when you stop trying to play it as an XCOM clone and utilise the stealth mechanics more. Picking off lone enemies with silenced weapons is highly recommended, and will make boss fights much easier when there are fewer foot soldiers to worry about. I found three silent weapons in my playthrough, meaning each character can have at least one capable of stealth. As soon as I began taking this approach, I had a much better time dispatching enemies. It runs the risk of feeling a little uninspired, as a lot of sneaking simply involves not entering an enemy’s detection circle, but it feels just about right for this game.
Although the game is largely about balancing stealth and combat, the pacing never feels too slow or fast. One playthrough will take around 10-12 hours, and there’s also a good amount of enemy variety to help keep things fresh. The main enemy is a faction known as Ghouls, with each unit type having different weapons and abilities. The bigger ones can knock players down, whereas the smaller ones can run further across the battlefield. Later on, mechanical foes are also introduced, including ones capable of dealing special attacks using electricity and mind control. This ensures that you’re not stuck getting used to one type for a significant amount of time, and that each new encounter can be as unpredictable as the last.
Mutant Year Zero is also unafraid to make light of its premise, and the appearance of a talking duck and boar in combat gear is frequently used as the butt of jokes to divide the action sequences. The banter between these characters is well-written, reminiscent of BioWare’s tendency to place levity at appropriate moments. Even when the dialogue needs to get serious, it still feels incredibly good to listen to – largely due to the excellent delivery by Bormin’s voice actor Enzo Squillino. World-building is another important part of the narrative design, achieved through these conversations but also delivered to the player with environmental cues. In one area, the characters talk about a palace owned by two star-crossed lovers known as Izza and Fala, and it is only when you happen across a decayed “Pizza & Falafel” restaurant that the reference makes sense.
Despite being quite hard to adjust to, strong writing and a unique sense of place helps build Mutant Year Zero‘s identity. With a rewarding blend of real-time and turn-based gameplay, it’s a worthy throwback to old RPGs and shooters such as Fallout and X-COM, while also bringing together a band of funny and interesting characters. It may not hit every note, but it’s packed with many surprises and will leave a noteworthy impression by the end.
Tested on PC
Also available on PS4, Xbox One, Switch
Developer The Bearded Ladies
Disclosure a copy of Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden was supplied by Evolve PR