Played on Windows.
Also available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch.
Mutant Year Zero is a tactical strategy game mixed with an adventure game producing an interesting combination. Quite a few compare it directly to XCOM for its tactical and turn-based gameplay and that makes sense. At the same time, there is a lot more to Mutant Year Zero than just a simple clone of another tactical game.
This is the second in my series of Humble Monthly Bundle reviews for April 2019. We already looked at Northgard and will follow this review up with Absolver, but it’s time to dig into Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden.
It’s important to note that Mutant Year Zero is based on a Tabletop Roleplaying game called Mutant so some of the mechanics will be based on that game which might have limited some of the creativity the studio had to work with, though I don’t believe that excuses these mistakes.
The game has impressive graphics. The few cutscenes that are in Mutant Year Zero look great, especially the opening scene that introduces to “Dux” the Duck and “Bormin” the Boar. These are the two mutants that you play as at the beginning of the game that make up your initial squad.
There are a total of five playable characters, with two human characters and three hybrids that make up the team. Each character is unique and looks great. Players will also get different sets of armor and helmets, and each will be visible on the characters, which changes the look of the character they are attached to.
The maps themselves are nicely detailed, and that helps the game too. There’s perhaps too much to find, but the game heavily relies on players to fully explore each area they find themselves in, and if players enjoy scavenging Mutant Year Zero will give them a large amount of area to cover.
In addition, there are a number of enemies, though the game seems to focus on three enemy types, human, humanoid robots and wolves. There are minor differences between a Tank and a Hunter, or a Butcher and a Shaman, but after a couple of hours, the player will have seen all but the boss enemies for the game.
The story of Mutant Year Zero takes a bit to start, the first half hour is just learning the major gameplay systems, but then the game will talk about the world as it stands. The characters you are playing are Stalkers who go out into the “Zone”. They work for the major base in the area called the “Ark” and scavenge supplies, including food and water.
Bad stuff has happened in the past and the game isn’t clear if this is just a local issue or a worldwide tragedy. Though it gives narration as if the later happened at the beginning, but also clues it might be more localized. However, you’re still in a post-apocalyptic world. From there the game just gives you the job of finding a fellow stalker named Hammond.
The characters in the game are clearly from the post-apocalyptic world and will keep making references to the strange things that most people would know. There are a couple of jokes at the beginning about a “Boom box” being a bomb because of the name and the buttons are dangerous. It’s clever at first. Sadly they use this same style of joke all throughout the game and each time it’s a little weaker
Eventually all of these jokes will run together.
It’s as if no information lasted in this world, it’s one thing to not understand what an iPod or a boom box is, but another when they don’t know what a playground, an aircraft or railroad tracks are. The game doesn’t make it clear how far in the future they are, but it feels like it’s not very far, so at least some source of information should still be around, or other books. The jokes just don’t work as well after a constant string of them
Though I will say Mutant Year Zero’s story does shape up and the end of the game is solid, but much of the game spends very little time on story and is more focused on the tactical gameplay.
There are, however, artifacts and notes that the player can find. The artifacts just have simple jokes like the “Boom Box” but the notes will fill in more of the world’s backstory or give hints to caches and those work well to enhance the story an extra notch.
What really makes Mutant Year Zero’s story and items work is that the game is split into two distinct parts. The game has a tactical part which plays like XCOM, which we’ll talk about in a second, but the majority of the game is done in an exploration mode with free motion. The characters are able to walk around the map freely and interact with different pieces of the world to gather supplies or items.
There are a number of chests with equipment. There are also a number of sources of scrap and weapon parts left around the environment and those can be used as resources that the player can trade with the Ark to improve their weapons and buy new items.
The chests are always enjoyable.
The exploration mode also allows you to position your characters so they can strategically isolate or attack enemies. If an enemy walks away from a group, players can move closer and then enter into the proper battle system.
The battle system of Mutant Year Zero is a tactical system that’s very much like XCOM. You can move each of your players and take actions. The actions are usually focused on shooting or using abilities on the enemy. There is digging down and overwatch, but I found that most of my overwatch shots missed, and with lower ammo capacity and more focus on stealth attacks, using overwatch wasn’t as necessary in this game.
The stealth system is more than just knowing when to strike or which move to use. Most enemies can be killed in a single turn and those who can’t can be stunned or pulled away from their group. If no other characters are aware of the attack, players will exit combat after a single target is taken down.
This allows the player to pick off enemies and eliminate the enemy’s forces piece by piece until the enemy has been decimated. The game relies on this stealth approach for almost every map and encounter.
The player’s can easily tell who can hear who by the circles of influence.
Players are also able to just skip encounters when possible by passing major enemies. Many of the strongest characters in the game can be bypassed. Mutant Year Zero also has side paths that will allow you to build up your characters further and gain valuable levels.
At least that’s the theory of this game.
In practice, Mutant Year Zero seems to have some minor design flaws that get in the way of what seems to be the typical way to play the game. The difficulty does have a major effect on gameplay as well as how players will be expected to build out their characters.
On normal difficulty, your health and skills recharge after every battle. It allows you to restart from a fresh tactical approach each time. The health regeneration is helpful but isn’t a major thing as the player should be avoiding damage whenever possible, but the mutation and skills you choose are critical.
Since stealth is necessary, some skills are more useful. Twitch Shot, Hog Rush, Emp Blast, and Mind Control are all significantly important to reach as fast as possible. Other abilities can be chosen but these become necessary to progress in the game and mutation choices are permanent.
What’s equally important is how you use these abilities. You’ll usually have only a couple of these abilities and you need to use them sparingly otherwise you won’t have enough damage to kill major enemies. Outside of normal difficulty, these abilities take “kills” to recharge. Most abilities will take 3 kills which means if you’re stealthily killing enemies, you’ll have to take out 3 single encounters just to use an ability a second time. Most enemies have more health than the player can dish out in a single turn as well so it becomes quite challenging.
Mutations will make a lot of difference when leveling up.
Similarly, you’ll need to upgrade your Stealth weapons as soon as possible, as those extra points of damage become essential before long.
I’ve heard people can play the game to the point where the player’s team will never take damage, and I could believe that only a few shots even hit me in this game, and much of the game is about timing and picking off the stragglers before taking on a full group.
Hit chances are a bit odd in this game as well. There are two major flaws to the system. There are only four values for the hit chance from what I’ve seen. This might be because the board game that it’s based on has only these values, but the variable chances in other tactical games feel more realistic.
The other side of this problem is save scumming can work here. Reloading a save restores the game to the same Random Number, so if your attack doesn’t work, reloading a save and changing the order or position of your characters can give you a chance to make shots you missed before. I also believe that a 75 percent chance to hit is even higher than 75 percent, as I only missed those shots a couple of times over the course of the entire campaign.
A bigger issue that I have with Mutant Year Zero is that stealth isn’t just heavily incentivized it becomes almost required. Trying to fight larger groups of enemies without taking out a significant amount of enemies one at a time will likely cause the player to lose. There are only a certain amount of enemies the player can take on reliably.
Even when it’s a large battle, there are clear strategies that must be adhered to. If the enemies have a Shaman, who has the ability to summon more enemies, players must take them out first or stun them, because the additional enemies will probably overwhelm you.
There are a number of other tricks, such as using grenades to take out enemies but because these are limited resources the number of times they can be done will be limited as well. That’s not to say the game needed multiple ways to beat every room, but it does mean there feels like there are only a handful of loadouts and play styles that really work with Mutant Year Zero. It also seems like you can be locked into a position where players can’t reliably kill anyone due to all their skills being on cooldown and the groups being too large for them to separate.
If an enemy isn’t killed in a single turn they will alert their friends, breaking the stealth approach and turning a one on three battle into a bedlam which will turn against the player quickly. The final enemies in an area can be mopped up this way, but it makes the stealth more essential earlier on each map.
You will also find random notes that fill in a little more knowledge of how the world changed.
Mutant Year Zero isn’t always clear how stealthy a player is being. The “Hog Rush” skill is usually referenced as a stealthy attack, but sometimes I had to separate the enemy further to use that skill. Sometimes using that skill would be heard by nearby enemies and sometimes not. There’s no “noise cone” around the targeting system.
Compare this to other parts of the game where just moving tells the player “Someone will notice this move”. It’s a way to illustrate the danger of the move so players know if they’ll be breaking their stealth.
As mentioned before, the enemies are duplicated quite often. There are a few areas of the game that are just swarmed with Polis-Bots, to the point that I kept picking them off until I got bored of it. After Killing five to ten they felt like a repetitive process that I had shown a mastery of already, but the game still wanted to see my technique each time and it felt like a grind. I could have avoided them just as easily but the valuable experience from each kill made me continue long after I had grown tired with it.
The character levels themselves don’t directly enhance the character but instead award mutator points to unlock skills. It’s a bit of a disconnect because the Health Points are what really matters to the enemy. It doesn’t matter what level the enemy or the player is if they only have 14 health points. As the level increases health points will change slowly, but it’s not a level by level difference either.
Some enemies also are granted Armor, which just reduces the damage the player can accrue. A few enemies have up to four points of armor which means a 10 point attack can be reduced to only 6 points of damage. There’s no way to remove the armor and it’s just a complication. Most of these enemies are Robots, so the EMP shot becomes essential to take them out, but again it creates a single way to fight those targets.
Admittedly, most of these issues are just design choices. I don’t think stealth should have been the primary playstyle allowed, and the game seems limited by a number of choices but I can understand it. Sadly there are two final problems with the game that really hurts it in my eyes.
Very XCOM-ish, for good reasons.
The first is the game is a bit short. There are not many levels and I found myself backtracking a lot to clear out old levels or hunt for more loot. I was able to beat the game in 16 hours on file, but it might have been closer to 13 or 14 hours played. This is a little shorter than I expected for a 30 dollar title.
The bigger issue though is there is little reason to replay the game. You can challenge the game a second time on a harder difficulty, but all the same strategies work on higher difficulties. Hard, and Very Hard are almost the same since much of the game revolves around not taking hits and using stealth, and managing your cooldown timers.
The layouts of the levels here don’t change, and that’s my biggest problems. Enemies won’t respawn nor change so if you replay the game a second time you’re going to see the exact same game with the exact same encounters, and probably see many of the side paths you already traversed to earn all the loot and levels you beat the first time around.
There is further bonus content in Stalker trials, a leaderboard style of tracking your progression, but after finishing the game I felt finished with it, rather than looking for more.
Mutant Year Zero has a number of issues, but it does have some good humor, solid gameplay and while it isn’t something I wanted to come back to, I’ll admit the first half of the game was fun in understanding the system and how it wanted me to play. I think Mutant Year Zero pushes the limit of what is acceptable in the encounters in the second half but I don’t hate the experience of Mutant Year Zero. It’s quite fun and I just wish they made it a little more approachable.
It makes me want a sequel to Mutant Year Zero because I see the framework of something solid. I like a lot of this, the stealth is fun, but I wanted more. I wanted to feel I was getting a randomized experience rather than the same maps that everyone has seen. I wanted to feel that stealth was just one of many approaches to the game, but here, it’s the only one that really works, and it means about half the game is of marginal use until the very end.
I give Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden a
So close to something exceptional, and if you want a harder version of XCOM or Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle with a higher focus of stealth, that’s here, but I think it could have been a lot better without making that mandatory.
Final Thoughts: A version of a tactics game that heavily incentivizes stealth to the point where it makes it mandatory. Good writing and style but a singular focus on the right way to play the game hold it back.
Stats: 16.2 hours played 14/36 achievements earned.