Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden, the stylish turn-based adventure game from the small but experienced team at The Bearded Ladies Consulting, is coming along nicely. I’ve spent the last few days with an early preview build, one that lets me explore the game’s opening few hours. But, while the stealth gameplay feels innovative and fresh, the product itself is desperately in need of more balance and polish.
Thankfully, it’s not due out for more than a month.
Mutant is based on a pen-and-paper role-playing game by the same name that was popular in Europe in the 1980s and ’90s. In that grimdark version of the post-apocalypse, global thermonuclear war has killed off billions, and turned many of the survivors into bizarre human and animal hybrids. Two of the game’s main characters, Dux and Borman, are a mutated duck and a mutated boar. But their affliction gives them powerful abilities, such as increased damage absorption or the power to fly.
The Bearded Ladies also roll in some more traditional turn-based perks to the mutations list, including skills that enhance headshots and hobble fast-moving enemies. Overall, the leveling mechanic feels an awful lot like the one from XCOM: Enemy Unknown, complete with branching trees that lead to highly specialized fighters.
But combat, such as I’ve seen so far, is almost nothing like Firaxis’ reboot of the 1994 alien-hunting classic.
The hook in Mutant is the ability to hide your soldiers behind cover. Each mission starts out with a free-roaming, real-time phase where you can explore the map and spy on your enemies at range. Some of those enemies will go on patrol and, by moving your soldier along behind them, you can get surprisingly close. Then, with the tap of a button, you can have your soldier hiding behind a tree or a rock. Once the enemy turns around, walking their patrol in the other direction, your soldier can ambush them from behind dealing extra damage.
Even more entertaining, once the trap is sprung, and so long as the other enemies on the map haven’t been alerted to your presence, you can reset your team. Once back in the real-time mode you’re free to keep exploring or searching for the next place to set a trap.
During the roughly three-hour demo, unfortunately, it was that transition between real-time and turn-based mode that glitched the most. Several times I was left standing in the open and stuck in turn-based mode, far from enemy forces who were otherwise completely unaware of my team. The only solution to that, and a few other bugs that had to do with loot and pathfinding, was to save the game and reload.
The bigger issue for me was the game’s balance. Early on, I didn’t feel powerful enough to take on more than a single enemy at one time. Some enemies could be seen on the map in the real-time phase, allowing me to plan ahead. Yet other enemies warped in behind me, ambushing me without warning.
At times, the demo for Mutant felt punitive. I had to play the first few engagements a half dozen times each to make it through. My characters were constantly going down, with a bleed-out timer over their heads counting down to their permanent death.
Unlike XCOM, there’s no endless stream of raw recruits to replace your band of plucky misfits. Mutant is a game with only five friendly characters total, and on hardcore mode the end product is expected to play somewhat like a lengthy roguelike. That makes losing someone in combat a big deal. Here’s hoping that the developers put a lot more cycles into making sure character death is a rare, meaningful occurrence when it happens.
Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden will retail for $34.99. It will have a simultaneous launch for PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One on Dec. 4.