It’s probably worth confessing at this point that I have never played XCOM, or rather the modern XCOM, I did dabble with the series back on the Amiga but that was nearly 25 years ago at this point. Instead my concept of turn based tactical shooters in a modern context really comes from the reboot of Shadowrun and a game called Hard West from a few years ago on Steam. Mutant Year Zero: Road To Eden has come in to show me what a game dedicated to the genre can be, something incredibly satisfying; almost like a violent puzzle, but also incredibly frustrating.
The world has ended, lots of things went wrong. All that’s left is wastelands and a surprisingly healthy supply of trees. There’s actually also some survivors, human and otherwise. The Elder run’s the Ark, a shanty town built high in the sky requiring a lift to access it from the wastelands below. The Elder is an old man rigged up to enough bags intravenously that he’s beginning to look like a medical testing doll. He commands the Stalkers, the ones who go outside of the Ark and scavenge for materials and supplies. In Mutant Year Zero you start by taking control of two of these stalkers, Bormin and Dux, a boar and a duck.
On the face of it, it would be easy to rather simply class Mutant Year Zero as a strategy game; you get in combat, you have a certain number of action points to spend, you have partial and full cover bonuses to defence and you take it in turns to blast someone and be blasted. But there’s also a quite satisfying stealth/action aspect to the game the blends nearly perfectly with the slower pace of the combat. Outside of fights you have full real time control of your party, wandering around the land and exploring buildings and wrecks for any materials or new gear you can use. When within sight of an enemy a large circle indicating combat area will appear. At this point you could just run in all guns blazing or you can use your advantage to set up choke points or gain the high ground before triggering the initiative order.
With your acquired gear from scavenging you tackle all manor of tactical scenarios to test your strategic brain muscles. More often than not combat does boil down to you being vastly out numbered and having to work your early magic to pick off stragglers before the real fight begins. Fights see you have to balance your party order and action points carefully as one misstep will cause you to see the Game Over screen for the hundredth time, and trust me, you’ll see it a lot.
I really don’t want to have to spend yet another review here on PixelBedlam talking about difficulty in games, at some point I’m going to start thinking it’s my skill level rather than every developer of the past 12 months having it in for me. But there’s no denying that Mutant Year Zero is hard as nails. The ‘Normal’ difficulty is actually the lowest the difficulty will go, and this just seems borderline cruel for the majority of the play through, your opening couple of hours will make you feel smart but in reality it’s just preparing you for failure. The addition of party members as you go seems to see the difficulty curve increase at a rate that doesn’t seem proportional. If the option was there I would have dropped the difficulty to an even easier option just to see the world that has been wonderfully crafted.
As you move through the world you will slowly start to level and earn skill points, there’s the usual critical chance increase as you would expect but there’s also some fascinating mutations that the wasteland has caused like Dux unlocking relatively early the option to grow moth wings and hover above the battlefield to cover a greater distance. None of these moves really pay off r how you hope and for the longest time you’ll be using weapons that are only ever really useful in the pre-combat stealth sequences. You’ll want to save your game all the time and take advantage of the relatively generous auto saving but with the load times on console not exactly being snappy this will be a very quick way to lost focus and interest.
The selling point for me of Mutant Year Zero is the story, the world and most of all the interactions between Dux and Bormin. The love/hate bromance between the two grizzled veterans of the wastelands really makes the slog of difficult combat quite tolerable. I want to love Mutant Year Zero and scream about it from the rooftops but to put it bluntly, unless you have mastered other tactical turn based shooters you’ll really struggle to get past the first few hours. Normally ‘for fans of…’ is a banned term in video game reviews but without prior in depth skill at this type of affair the incentive to invest the 15-20 odd hours into the game is somewhat lacking. Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is a great story wrapped in beautiful world design and lore, with top notch voice acting and UI, but it is all let down by one of it’s key features, the combat. This is yet another case where the GIT GUD mentality has unfortunately hindered what could have been a must play.