Just when we thought that the year could not offer any more surprises, out comes Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden from developer The Bearded Ladies. This indie title is actually published by Funcom, and while it’s a little rough around the edges, it’s a lot of fun to play with characters who provide a lot of heart and more than a few laughs.
The game is based on a Swedish pen and paper role-playing game. In it, those who survived the apocalypse deep in their underground bunkers spent a lot of time splicing DNA and trying to create human and animal hybrids who could survive in the wrecked world. Apparently, humanity dies out in the paper RPG, leaving only the mutants. Here, there are only a few mutants, a handful of un-altered humans clustered in a settlement called The Ark, and lots of former humans turned murderous cannibals which the game calls ghouls.
Into this world steps our two heroes, Dux and Bormin. Dux is a giant, walking duck, sort of like Howard the Duck. Bormin is a pig man, or more accurately, a wild boar. Together they form a stalker team, heading out into the wasteland to search for supplies for The Ark where they live. Humans who head out into the wasteland get overwhelmed by the poison atmosphere, likely turning into ghouls. But mutants are unaffected, so they make up the stalker teams.
Dux and Bormin are some of the greatest reasons why Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is so much fun. Dux is a wisecracking sniper who seems to hate everything, or at least complains that he does. Bormin is his somewhat reluctant partner, who takes the brunt of Dux’s complaints most of the time in stride, before occasionally telling him to shut the hell up and keep moving. The two work really well together in a buddy-cop kind of way, and some of their interactions are priceless. Along the way they will meet some other stalkers including a fox named Farrow who also adds some colorful dialog and a little bit of her own insanity.
The main plot of the game is that a scientist who is critical to keeping The Ark running has gone missing. This person often goes out into the wasteland but may have run into more trouble that they could handle. The leader of The Ark, which is some sort of a power plant up on stilts (hence easy to defend against the ghouls below) sends Dux and Bormin out to find him. Along the way they will meet other mutants and can create a squad of up to three active stalkers at a time. Mutants not actively participating in combat sill earn experience, so everyone will level up at the same time regardless of who the active characters are at any given time.
The plot is basically just a way to get you out there exploring the wasteland. Everything is divided up by zones, with a large map connecting them all. When you drop into a new zone, you have complete freedom of movement within that zone, but may not be able to exit to a new area without finding something like a key in order to progress. You can also fast travel back to The Ark to resupply, or to any zone that you have previously visited.
As you wander the world, Dux, Bormin and the rest of your crew will comment on things they find. It’s clear that they don’t understand the old world, but sometimes make some pretty good guesses about things they find. For example, when locating an iPod, Dux is convinced that it is an ancient device used to check the quality of fruit. Anyway, amazing loot like that can be turned in at The Ark for permanent buffs to your characters while the rest of the scrap you find is basically currency to be used in the game’s fairly limited store, which is also at The Ark.
Combat in Mutant Year Zero is turn-based. Comparisons will be made, by the developers themselves and everyone else, to XCOM. But as much as I love this game, it’s no XCOM. There are too many balancing issues, and only one good way to approach combat. For example, each mutant has a handful of special abilities. Dux can fly up into the air to score a critical hit while Bormin can charge forward and knock an opponent down, stunning them. But instead of a cool-down timer in rounds like in XCOM, mutants need to make between one and three kills to reload their abilities. The problem is that we are talking about very small combat engagements. There often are not enough enemies to fully reload a good ability, even if you could somehow get one stalker to make every kill shot. Bad guys don’t seem to have any similar constraints, and can use their special abilities (such as the tank ghoul who charges over and knocks you down) every turn with impunity.
Even when your abilities match an opponent’s, yours seem gimped by comparison. For example, one of your stalkers has the ability to take over the mind of an enemy, which is very much like in XCOM. However, your ability to control an opponent only lasts for a single turn. Meanwhile, a ghoul unit who can do the same thing keeps control of your character for several turns. And of course, the enemy can activate that ability again whenever they want, while you need to make three kills to reset your special. Pretty unfair, right?
Because the odds are stacked against you, there is only one way to be successful when you play. First you enter a zone and sneak around. Find enemies who are separated from the main group, either because that is where they are posted or because they have long patrol loops. Then you attack them with silenced weapons, making sure to kill them in one turn so they don’t call their friends. Then after you have killed absolutely everyone you can get to without triggering the main mob, you move in and do the final set-piece battle. If you screw up and activate the main mob early, you probably won’t survive because of the limited ability to trigger your specials, and because of the high number of hit points (and sometimes armor) that your enemies have. Sadly, you will probably need to save scum quite a bit, especially in the early game.
Once you figure out the way to approach combat, things get easier, or at least routine. Which is the second problem with the game. While having a level or two be solvable by picking off stragglers, having to do that every single time gets a bit repetitive or even boring. Honestly, if the characters were not so cool, this would not be nearly as good a game.
Balancing issues aside, there is something about Mutant Year Zero that is extremely alluring. There is about twenty hours of gameplay in the main campaign, which is about right for the current $35 price tag. It’s a refreshing twist on the turn-based strategy genre, and well worth your time to check it out.