If there’s one thing I’ve come to realise after my time with Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden, a game in which an anthropomorphic pig and duck shoot at things, it’s this – there are not enough games in which anthropomorphic pigs and ducks shoot at things. Based on a tabletop franchise stretching back to the mid-80s, Mutant Year Zero harks back to a time when fantasy could be gritty and grimdark while still flirting with absurd and often very camp ideas. Just seeing the game’s character art for the first time was enough to get me on board with Road to Eden, and thankfully the world and the game that Bearded Ladies Consulting have created does the property justice.
Mutant Year Zero takes place in a post-human world, one in which a catastrophic disease called the Red Plague has wiped out all but a tiny pocket of humanity who now live in a shelter called The Ark, under the guidance of a man named The Elder. Among the last remaining humans also live Stalkers, mutants found by The Elder in the wastelands of The Zone and trained in combat to protect the people. When one of The Ark’s top engineers, a man named Hammon, goes missing in search of a mythical sanctuary of humanity called Eden, The Elder calls on Bormin and Dux (and eventually some new friends) to travel deep into the Zone to find Hammon. Of course The Zone is full of danger, namely in the form of crazed mutants, robots, cultists and more, so the journey won’t be easy.
Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is a turn-based tactical RPG/shooter not unlike XCOM (or the fantastic and far less dark Mario and Rabbids Kingdom Battle), in which either side of a battle takes turns positioning and commanding their units according to set rules. In Road to Eden that means spending each of your team’s action points on having them move, attack and use special abilities in the hopes of emerging from a battle victorious. While these types of games can often be grandiose and high-strategy affairs, Mutant takes a decidedly tighter and more focussed approach that shifts the attention from complex RPG elements to the moment-to-moment action and keeps the stakes high.
Road to Eden’s biggest shake-up of the tactical action formula is in its unique stealth mechanics. While exploring the semi-open world of The Zone, you’ll come across groups of enemies to contend with. Combat in the game doesn’t initiate until one of your group is spotted though, so it’s crucial to success that you plan ahead and get the drop on the opposition. While you mostly explore as a group, it’s possible to split your team members off individually and position them strategically prior to inciting a fight, in ways that best suit their unique abilities. It’s also possible to ambush and pick off small numbers of an enemy group without alerting all of the surrounding units, though doing so is often easier said than done. While it’s sometimes not clear enough how ‘stealthy’ your attempts at stealth will actually be, and often the unforgiving RNG for hit accuracy can foil an otherwise solid plan, it’s rewarding and engaging in a game like this to be able to take steps towards success before a fight even begins.
Elsewhere, Mutant Year Zero sticks fairly close to established formulae. Between battles you’ll scavenge the world and its various self-contained areas for loot and scraps with which to upgrade your mutants and their gear, and you’ll learn about the lore through notes and artifacts and expository dialogue. The few RPG-like systems in place are neat, but not as deep or malleable as in other, similar titles. It’s not often a game’s length has a direct effect on its gameplay systems but that’s the case here; Road to Eden is a fairly brief experience (for the genre) at around 12-15 hours, which means that character progression happens quickly. It’s not uncommon for your team to gain multiple levels from a single skirmish, and so rather than have their stats grow rapidly with each level up, your mutants simply earn points with which to spend on unlocking new abilities. This feeds nicely back into that tight, tactical combat as well, because your squad members’ stats don’t change drastically from the beginning to the end of the game; they’ll always feel somewhat vulnerable, meaning spending time on gearing them up properly and executing smart stealth and combat strategies is extremely crucial. There’s no grinding easy battles to beef up your peeps and overcome a tough encounter, you either learn and adapt to the challenge or you fail.
A pig and a duck walk into a bar…
Road to Eden’s trimmed-down approach to the genre also means it works wonderfully on consoles. Controls are well laid out, there’s rarely any visual or UI element that looks awkward on a TV and if anything the exploratory parts of the game feel right at home on a big screen. I often forgot that I was playing a hardcore strategy game as I traipsed around the ruins of civilisation with my animal friends. It’s also a fairly handsome game, the dark and muted colour palette that would normally make me roll my eyes in any other ‘gritty’ action game fits perfectly with the tone of the Mutant universe and the overall package reminds me a lot of 90s PC games with their weird, oddball designs and painfully camp ‘cool’ factor.
I played the game on a PlayStation 4 Pro and did notice a little slowdown and frame dropping in some of the larger battles, but nothing overly detrimental, especially in a game that doesn’t require fast reactions. The game’s sparing music is non-offensive, but not particularly memorable, and the voice acting is passable. Some of the sound effects though sound jarringly low-res, almost like someone on the dev team had to record a bunch of stuff last-minute through their headset mic. Still, the scrappy and roughshod presentation coupled with the unique visual design punctuates the feel of the world nicely, and works as a refreshing antithesis to the hyper-polished and focus-tested offerings in the AAA space.
Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden feels like a much older game. That’s not a negative, though. Rather it feels like a game from an era where a comparative lack of publisher and market expectations meant that a hardcore, tactical RPG featuring mutant animal people could sit on the shelf alongside whatever the hot new first person shooter was. There’s still life in the AA market, it seems.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro | Review code supplied by publisher