Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden, the new post-apocalyptic adventure game, launches today on PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One. The turn-based tactical game has a lot going for it, including a small, experienced team with credits on the Hitman series. In motion it’s a clever hybrid of modern, XCOM-like tactical gameplay and real-time stealth. Unfortunately, it lacks the kind of elasticity that makes other titles in that genre so much fun to play.
With a steep difficulty curve and a limited palette of options available to the player, the game feels terribly unbalanced. The only way forward is to painstakingly save your progress every step of the way.
Based on a pen-and-paper role-playing game by the same name, Mutant Year Zero posits a distant future where nuclear war has killed off billions, turning some survivors into bizarre and powerful mutants. Players take on the role of a small band of explorers, called Stalkers, that come complete with some top-notch voice acting. A fast-talking duck-man (Dux) and a stalwart boar-man (Bormin) steal the show, their banter giving the otherwise dreary game a rich, comedic texture.
Mutant Year Zero shows real genius in its real-time stealth elements, which give players extraordinary freedom to maneuver and plan their attacks. Each mission allows you to take control of up to three Stalkers, exploring the map using the WASD keys on PC or the thumbsticks on console. You can switch between the characters in your party, moving each one into the perfect position to ambush the sentries on guard.
In real-time, I always felt in control of when and where I engaged the enemies on the map. Picking off stragglers with silenced weapons is a joy. Better still, the game rewards you for exploration by triggering additional bits of dialogue as you move around the map. The game’s environmental storytelling is excellent, with maps ranging from small, linear experiences to massive set-pieces. Each one is packed with detail.
In my experience, however, all of those positives go out the window once the turn-based action kicks in.
When you trip the alarm in Mutant Year Zero, it alerts every enemy on the map to your exact position. Grunts quickly surround your forces and boss enemies zoom in for the kill. Meanwhile, support troops circle the battlefield, either tossing grenades into the scrum or reviving enemies that were killed minutes before.
In these situations, there’s little to do but load a previously saved game. It’s a situation that the developers seem to acknowledge with the addition of an auto-save system that caches a new file after every stealth kill. I simply can’t imagine finishing the game on “ironman” mode, which does not include the option to save and reload on your own.
Even in a fair fight with balanced forces on each side, both ranged weapons and throwables feel too underpowered for pitched battle. This is especially true early on, before more advanced weapons have been discovered. Worse still, very few of your mutant’s more interesting superpowers, like the ability to fly or leap to high ground, feel useful in combat situations.
When starting a new game of Mutant Year Zero, players are given the choice of three difficulty levels. More challenging modes reduce the amount of damage that your weapons do and limit how many hit-points Stalkers regenerate outside of combat. I tried for a while, but simply can’t recommend playing the game on anything other than its lowest difficulty setting.
If you do decide to pick the game up, expect a challenging and at times repetitive experience. So long as you don’t mind save-scumming, there’s an excellent storyline here tied to a fun real-time stealth game. But, as far as turn-based gameplay, Mutant Year Zero still needs a lot of work.
Here’s hoping that the team continues to support the game post-launch. There’s so many good ideas inside that it would be a shame to see the audience pass them by.