It’s not unusual for games to stretch the bounds of believability, but Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden really takes the post-apocalyptic piss.
This isometric stealth shooter would have you believe that your characters, an anthropomorphic duck and boar, could live unaccosted alongside the world’s few remaining humans. Nonsense. The moment the settlement’s food reserves started to dwindle, they’d be added to the menu before they could ask, “What do you need twelve gallons of hoisin sauce for anyway?”
Yet against all odds, Dux and Borman have become valued members of The Ark, mankind’s last unmutated outpost. They’re a charmingly naive pair, happy to risk their lives to the point where I suspect the human populace is taking advantage of them. “Face a band of murderous, gun-toting ghouls? Yeah, send the duck and the pig. They’ll do it.” You can’t create your own characters, which is mildly disappointing, but I suppose I can live without my porpoise-headed, lobster-clawed agent of death.
Also appealing is the way that they misinterpret “ancient” civilisation, extrapolating a Romeo and Juliet-style love story from the sign on a pizzeria, or concluding that an Apple iPod is a fruit-testing device. Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is a little less serious than the pen-and-paper RPG it’s based on, but it dishes out these wry observations sparingly, ensuring that the game stays the right side of twee.
There’s a story of sorts here, though if you’ve played any other post-apocalyptic games such as Fallout or Horizon: Zero Dawn, you’ll quickly spot the tale’s familiar beats including Eden, the titular utopia. But what really makes the game stand out is the way it seamlessly blends stealth tactics and turn-based combat. Mutant Year Zero’s easy difficulty level makes for a more traditional X-COM style experience, where you can scythe your way through the enemies that stumble into your path, but play it that way and you’ll seriously be missing out.
Played as it’s intended to be played, Mutant Year Zero’s enemies are capable of annihilating you in a single turn, and it’s all the better for it. Even if you don’t wander into the game’s helpfully-marked red zones you’re in for the fight of the life, which is entirely in keeping with the game’s post-apocalyptic scenario. My first few sorties ended in horrific, frustrating failure simply because I was trying to play it like a traditional turn-based shoot’em up. It’s a blessing that you can’t get your Mutant Year Zero characters permanently killed, otherwise I’d have been down to recruiting anthropomorphic dust-mites.
Instead, success in Mutant Year Zero entails observing your opponents, choosing when to fight and when to flee and, if combat is unavoidable, how to gain the upper hand. The game’s context-sensitive display is pleasingly clear, leaving you in no doubt as to how close your enemies are to discovering you or how much damage your next shot is likely to do. Naturally, there’s a random element at play here, but failure never feels unfair.
Conversely, success here is so very, very sweet. You’ll be grinning like an idiot as you pick your foes off one by one, flanking them before they have the chance to alert their fellow ghouls. And then, when there’s only a few left, you wipe them out, secure and rather smug in the knowledge that it was your planning, your patience that led the three-strong squad to victory. You’re then able to plough those victory points into upgrading your characters’ abilities (or mutations) which are suitably diverse. Don’t ask me why a duck needs to grow moth wings to fly – but when, for a few brief moments, you’re hovering above your foes, ready to fire, you won’t be complaining.
Learning to think three-dimensionally, the battlefields frequently being multi-layered, is essential. There was a beautifully satisfying moment during my playthrough when, having been slaughtered several times, I had a brainwave. I sneaked onto the ferry I’d been tasked with boarding but, instead of making my escape, I led two of my team into the cabin. Firing down on my foes, I annihilated all but the strongest of them, overjoyed that my tactics had paid off. Mutant Year Zero is stuffed with moments like this, moments which will leave you patting yourself on the back so hard you’ll have a hand-shaped bruise for days.
Mutant Year Zero does have a few rough edges, though. The game’s suitably pretty and the main character voice acting is on point, but the voices of the ghouls, all fed through the same electronic filter, do start to grate. You have the freedom to explore and revisit multiple locations, but in order to get a foothold and to give your characters a fighting chance, you’ll need to grind a little. Also, seeing an enemy’s shotgun pellets pass through a rock as if it wasn’t there is a little disconcerting; as is having your characters teleport to you rather than walk back.
Nevertheless, unless you’re thoroughly sick to death of post-apocalyptia, you’ll find that Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is a charming, entertaining outing; one that gives the turn-based combat genre a much needed shot in the arm.