Mutant Year Zero: Road To Eden: Review
by: Stephen Machuga
I haven’t played a turn-based strategy game intently since the majestic rebirth of the XCOM series on consoles a few years ago. As much as I love the concept of XCOM, handcrafting squads of super soldiers to take on aliens, the story was always lacking for me. And XCOM games are never short little walks in the park, usually clocking dozens upon dozens of hours to see an ending.
I’d been keeping a watchful eye on Mutant Year Zero, but didn’t actually think I was going to pull the trigger on playing the game. However, not only did I start hearing good things about it from people I trusted, the best part was the game was nearly free on Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass, which I already had subscribed to for my Sea of Thieves adventuring. In other words, I had nothing to lose by installing it and giving it a whirl.
Well, my recent ho-hum gaming doldrums were shaken up pretty nicely; apparently, Mutant Year Zero was just what the doctor ordered to get me out of my recent gaming slump.
The story of Mutant Year Zero? Well, it’s post-apocalyptic Europe in the far-flung future. Where? Not sure. When? Who knows? All you need to know is that between nuclear war and ecological disasters, humanity “done goofed” and blowed ourselves up real good. The last bastion of civilization is a giant city perched above the chaos, The Ark, and is led by a wise person known as The Elder. The Elder sends out raiding teams known as Stalkers out of the Ark into the wasteland, known as The Zone, for scrap and supplies to keep the metallic heart of the Ark beating. But as we’re quick to discover, the supplies are running out, and Stalkers are being asked to range out further and further to find support wherever they can, in hopes of one day finding the fabled promised land of Eden, a perfect non-irradiated settlement where everyone lives happily ever after.
You play as a pair of mutants: a squat, dwarven-like pig known as Bormin and his sniper duck sidekick, Dux. The two are Stalkers who have been tasked to find where the Ark’s master mechanic, Hammond, has disappeared to. Without his expertise, the Ark will surely perish, so the two brave the Zone, fighting off “ghouls” (mutants living in the zone) in the hunt for him. Compared to XCOM, Mutant Year Zero has a story in spades, with Dux and Bormin both playing off their love-hate relationship with one another: Dux, the hotheaded complainer while Bormin plays the more even-keel leader role. Over time, your party expands to a third slot, and you find two other mutants you can interchange out with one another to change up your team dynamics.
So how is the actual gameplay? Well, Mutant Year Zero definitely hearkens back to the turn-based strategy of XCOM, without a doubt. You pile your 2-3 mutant team in behind cover, taking turns shooting at enemy forces. The thing that differentiates Mutant Year Zero from XCOM is that you spend a lot of your time sneaking around and trying to pick off lone ghouls or robots. I played through the entirety of Mutant Year Zero on Normal difficulty, and through the first half of the game, I was getting my teeth kicked in. The level of difficulty getting started is no joke, and you often find yourself outnumbered by stronger enemies if you aren’t able to thin out their numbers before the real fighting starts. I made sure every team member had a silenced weapon of some kind and we were picking off stragglers every chance we got. Each zone usually has a primary set piece of a theme of some kind, whether its a boat dock, pizzaria, or amusement park, and there’s usually at least one “named” boss wandering around in a set spot or patrol pattern. They usually guard some pretty sweet loot, so it’s in your best interest to clear out each area thoroughly.
Early on, every piece of scrap and gun part is critical for your survival. I found myself woefully outleveled in many of the areas where I was supposed to be at, so I would simply go through, pick off as many enemies as I could in an area, try to get as much loot as I could, then move to the next harder area and repeat the process. After a while, I’d have enough loot that I could go back, upgrade some guns, level up my character’s abilities, and then go back out and scavenge all over again. I was a little upset that enemies didn’t reset after you left a zone to give you the opportunity to level your characters up, but now that I’m done with the game, there are plenty of spots for you to kill stragglers and swipe loot without engaging an overwhelming force.
Mutant Year Zero definitely has some its fair share of issues. The difficulty spike at about midway through the game when they’re asking you to complete quest objectives in zones that you’re far underleveled for is no joke. One of the reasons this is such a problem is the game’s stealth mechanic is…odd. All enemy forces have a perfect circle of vision. Not a cone that most games give enemies: a perfect 360-degree circle of all-seeing. Are you on the other side of a wall? You’re spotted. So you can’t do the usual “wait until the enemy’s back is turned, sneak up on them, and pounce” technique. They always know you’re coming. The next issue is the game gives you a total of three stealth weapons ever, and all three of them are next to useless. I had the same crossbow that Dux started the game within his inventory to the end of the game, doing a whopping four points of damage on a hit against enemies that had upwards of 32 health points.
So what is the work around? Disabling the enemy. You sneak up on an unsuspecting enemy, get everyone as close as you can with your crappy stealth weapons, then have Bormin charge and knock them to the ground, or Dux can take a shot and disable a robot for a turn. You then spent the next turn or two desperately hoping you’re able to do enough damage to your target before it gains consciousness and alerts the entire zone that you are there (which it will do). It’s a bit annoying of a process.
Speaking of process, get ready to “save scum” your butt off. The concept of save scumming means you’re saving every time you have a good round, and then reload when things go sideways (which they often do). There’s no way to tell if you making any noise during a fight will bring the entire zone of bad guys running, or if they’re far enough away that you can get your real weapons out to fight and not have to worry about it. Always assume the worst, because once you start a fight and all the enemies in the zone come in, there is no way to break contact or flee the zone. You either clear the whole zone or die and have to restart. It’s extremely annoying for a game so focused on hit-and-run tactics for me to not see I’m losing in the middle of a fight, then say, “Okay, we are out!” and run to the corner of the map and escape.
The leveling and item management part of Mutant Year Zero isn’t the greatest either. Each mutant has an extremely limited talent tree that you can “mutate” points into, such as giving Dux moth wings so he can fly vertically to vantage points with his sniper rifle, or Bormin’s stone skin ability to make him invulnerable for a turn. But the problem is that you can only have a few of these talents and mutations active at any one time. Sure, there may be 10 skills Bormin can purchase, but he can only have two of them slotted, so you’re constantly going in and having to change out perks, never really feeling like you’re getting stronger. You don’t get more hit points per level (which would make sense), but you get points you can invest into a mutation where you can get a single extra hit point at a time. At the very end of the game, one of my mutants had a whopping nine points of health at level 54, and to give you an idea, one burst of fire from any weapon at that point does 10 or more damage. Same with weapons: takes thirty weapons parts to level one of your weapons up once to give it +1 damage and +1 critical damage, another 60 to do it again. That is a LOT for not a lot in return.
Also, there’s no way to unload junk. I had so much scrap and gear in my inventory I couldn’t do anything with, for a society wrapped up in collecting and scavenging, I’m sure the vendor could have gotten some use out of the 19 hand grenades I had just chilling in my inventory. There are not enough things worth buying in the store, and even if there were, there’s no way to sell items you’re not using. Very annoying.
A lot of little, little gripes take away from what was a really tight 20-hour single player narrative and turn-based strategy title in Mutant Year Zero. But for the price of zero dollars from my Xbox Game Pass and my not having played a turn-based strategy game in years, I’m glad I gave it a shot and got my mutants into Eden to discover its secrets.