Ever since the X-COM series of video games burst into the scene in the 90’s, many players have been fond of turn-based tactical games. But games of this ilk have been few and far between, even though American developer Firaxis answered many a strategy fan’s prayers with its great XCOM: Enemy Unknown game back in 2012, and also produced a superb sequel to that game in 2016.
And those wishing for another game of this type are in luck, as Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden brings back the great turn-based tactical gameplay of the X-COM games to great effect, but also has good characters, story and atmosphere, making it one of the best games of this kind to hit shelves in years.
Mutant Year Zero’s story is told through well-produced, storyboard-style cutscenes (and also in-engine cutscenes), and there’s enough mystery in it to keep you engaged throughout. A big chunk of this involves rescuing a character named Hammon from a quasi-religious group known as the “Nova Sect”, which has major destruction in mind… The mutants (of which you control a party of in the game) want the guy back, as he’s critical to the running of the Ark.
The Ark is a refuge the mutants have built for themselves in the game’s post-apocalyptic world, a shelter from the dangers of this post-nuclear world. One of these dangers are the ghouls, hideous creatures which roam Mutant Year Zero’s post-apocalyptic wasteland, which is known in the game as “The Zone”.
The game’s world looks good, and the graphics, especially the lightning, help amp up the atmosphere of the game. Aside from the Ark (where you can purchase upgrades and listen to new story titbits) you get to journey through forests, ruined buildings, a derelict train station, an abandoned docks and other locations throughout the game.
But despite how bleak the game’s post-apocalyptic world looks, a sense of humour permeates the entire game, while Mutant Year Zero also makes fun of its animal-like mutant characters. These include Bormin, a mutant who looks like a giant boar, and Dux, who’s a duck-like mutant as you can imagine.
The two are introduced in an in-engine cutscene early in the game, and there’s some funny banter between the two throughout the course of the game, with Bormin telling Dux to “shut the duck up” in one cutscene. And after encountering a boom box early in the game, Dux urges Bormin not to press any buttons on it, with the mutant duckling thinking it may be a bomb…
Ghouls yelling “get the fat one” when referring to Bormin during combat might also bring a grin to your face. Later in the game, when your mutant squad comes across a tractor, Bormin is impressed by it, saying it must have been one hell of a war machine… In general, Mutant Year Zero uses this kind of humour humour to great effect throughout.
Actually, Mutant Year Zero is a cut above X-COM and its nondescript soldiers, and overly serious atmosphere. But while Dux and Bormin sure are a pair of loveable characters, they seem to be better developed than the rest, and also better voice acted in my view. The other standout in the game is a wise old man known as “The Elder”, who fills you in on backstory and mission details at the Ark. Others, like a fox-like mutant named Farrow, have a pretty annoying voiceover truth be told, and is a bit too talky during combat for my liking too.
Aside from getting to know the game’s characters through dialogue and gameplay, exploration is worthwhile here. You get to explore several interconnected, self-contained areas of the map, while you can also fast-travel to any previously visited areas too. The world is seen from the usual isometric perspective, as is common in games of this type.
Wandering through Mutant Year Zero’s forests at night is an eerie experience, especially taking into account that you could run into the game’s vicious ghoul enemies at any point. When this happens, combat can break out, although if you’re sneaky enough you might be able to ambush your enemies too.
Ambushing enemies gives you a tactical advantage as you might imagine, and for this it’s a good idea to get as close as possible to the enemy or enemies in question and then hit the ambush button. You know how close you can get to an enemy without being spotted thanks to a red circle which is shown onscreen – step inside it’s thick outline and the enemy will spot you.
The red circle is smaller when you’re in sneak mode. In this mode, the character you are controlling (Dux, Bormin or another) will turn off his flashlight, making it easier for you to pass by enemies undetected. This is also useful when setting up ambushes and when you’re looking for the ideal cover spots for each member of your squad.
If you do get spotted before you can setup and ambush though, the consequence of this is that the opposing side will get the first turn in combat, and obvious disadvantage for you and your mutant squad.
An issue here is that you will only get spotted if the character you are controlling ventures into the red area – the other two, AI-controlled mutants in your squad can venture into the red circle without your team getting spotted, which is a bit unrealistic truth be told, although understandable since those two characters are not under your control and AI isn’t perfect, even though your squad mates follow you pretty well most of the time though.
The same is true when sneaking, and sometimes squad members I wasn’t controlling wandered pretty close to enemies without being spotted, although this did not bother me much during my playthrough, noticeable as it is.
Also, your team can split up, letting you control each character in isolation to the others, adding more strategic possibilities to the game, and making it easier for you to place each character in order to ambush enemies.
Taking out stragglers in this manner is a good idea, as reducing enemy numbers before facing the main group can tilt encounters in your favour. For this purpose, silent weapons help, letting you take out patrolling enemies without alerting nearby ghouls.
Like in other turn-based tactical games, each of your squad mates gets two action points per turn. This means you can combine actions like moving to a new cover spot and shooting, or reloading and shooting in one turn, although actions like shooting and sprinting will always end the current character’s turn, though, with the game giving you control of the next member of the squad yet to use his actions points during the current turn. Enemies will carry out their actions once you’ve played all your characters during the turn.
You can have two weapons equipped at any one time during the game, and switch between them in combat. I would normally have each of my characters carry one silent and another non-silent weapon at all times.
You see, silent weapons pack less of a punch in Mutant Year Zero, but they are the best way to kill enemies without their pals becoming alerted to your presence, as stated earlier. Some weapons like the shotgun and scattergun do make a racket, so get ready for a fight if you resort to the noisy weapons in your arsenal to take down foes.
Actually, whittling down enemy numbers by killing lone enemies silently is so important that I found myself reloading the game sometimes when I failed to take down a straggler in one turn, as he invariably would alert all his comrades, making the fight exponentially more difficult, and leading to trial and error gameplay.
And make no mistake, like X-COM before it, Mutant Year Zero is a punishingly difficult game. Enemies hit hard and position themselves well. High-level enemies also have devastating abilities like mind control. You’ll also face huge robots (with an alarmingly high number of hit points to boot) later in the game.
This means that deciding which enemies to deal with first can often be the key to success. Medical robots are a serious nuisance given their ability to revive their enemies, and you’ll soon learn to take these out as early as possible. Also, the “pyro” enemies which hurl Molotov cocktails at your team (thereby setting your party on fire) should be dealt with swiftly too, while some groups of enemies feature shamans amongst their ranks – these can call for reinforcements, making the battle more difficult, meaning there were usually amongst the first to get a taste of my mutant’s weapons.
Having to prioritize which enemies to take out first adds quite a bit of depth to the game’s tactics, and it’s also true that even the hardest enemies can be beaten by clever use of tactics here. Being behind cover before starting an ambush helps, while as you can imagine high ground gives you an advantage too.
Later in the game I had to go against a particularly tough enemy (a “brother” of the Nova Sect), who fired electricity bolts which would ricochet off a character and into nearby characters, hurting my entire squad at once. Spreading my characters helped here, and also taking cover in a nearby cabin helped shield one of my characters from this enemy. Also, this enemy character can buff up other ghouls, but is unable to do anything else while doing so.
One of the coolest moments I experienced in the game was when fighting against a group which included one of these “electricity” enemies. My team of mutants was close to defeat, while the enemy in question (Brother Lundgren) was buffing up a “tank” enemy, a ghoul with more hit points than average and which can charge opposing characters too. With a lucky shot, though, I was able to kill Lungdren, who since at that moment was connected to the tank led to the death of both enemies, and a satisfying, skin-of-the-teeth victory for me.
Regarding “lucky shots”, one thing I did not like is that sometimes my characters seemed to miss clear shots, for instance, when standing pretty close to an enemy not behind cover, and also on other occasions when I had I had probability of scoring a hit, but sadly you’re at the mercy of probabilities here.
Of course, taking cover behind obstacles (like walls, for instance) gives you a defence bonus, especially if it’s full cover instead of low cover. Later in the game though, you can acquire a perk (these are called mutations in the game) for your characters which makes low cover as effective as full cover, granting you an advantage in battle.
Other perks you can acquire throughout the game add more gameplay possibilities, including one which lets you perform an action after sprinting. Your characters sprint to another location during combat when you order them to move to a point outside their movement range, and this normally ends the turn. But being able to perform an action (such as shooting) after sprinting allows for flanking actions for instance, and is a cool way of nullifying enemy cover.
Other perks you can get throughout the game are grisly, though: for instance, your mutants can gain the ability to eat the corpses of fallen enemies during combat. This came in handy during one battle in which I was out of medkits, as eating the corpse of an enemy let one of my characters get all her health back, allowing me to ace that particular encounter.
These perks can be assigned to characters after they level up, as you get points every time you level up. Each perk and stat boost (such as increasing the number of hit points a character like Bormin has), cost a certain number of points, and it’s fun to decide how to improve each character’s abilities to suit your needs in combat.
Also, the fact that you come across weapons mods and special armour types and other items throughout the game adds to the tactical possibilities. For instance, some weapon mods improve your chances of landing a critical hit, others give you a chance of setting enemies on fire.
Some armour types make your characters immune to electrical damage and mind control, a major boon when dealing with some of the game’s toughest enemies. You can change your characters’ armour and weapons whenever you please, although installing weapon mods requires a trip to the Ark, the mutant’s base.
At the Ark you can also use weapons parts you’ve collected during your travels to upgrade your guns, and also use any scrap you’re picked up while exploring the map to buy items such as medkits.
Medkits sure are a valuable commodity in the game, as mutants will fall down and bleed out when all their hit points are depleted as a result of being hit by ghouls or other enemies during combat. Another squad member can bring them back to life using a medkit, though.
Also, taking into account that your characters only regain 50 % of their hit points after winning a battle on the default difficulty level (regaining the rest requires use of a medkit) means you’ll want to stock up on these before venturing in to the hardest areas of the game.
Of course, decking out your mutants in the finest gear and carrying a healthy amount of medkits sometimes isn’t enough and sometimes you’ll have to grind and level up your characters before continuing the main quest, especially when you encounter enemies above your level. You can do this by completing optional areas, such as a scary underground base in the northern part of the map in which ghouls had slaughtered the human occupants.
Mutant Year Zero offers a very good turn-based tactical experience, then, but it does have its share of niggles. Sometimes the camera glitches out, and doesn’t show the best view of the action. These moments are rare though, and most of the time you can position the camera to your liking, so this isn’t much of an issue during the game.
Also, I experienced audio glitches whereby the sound would cutout when entering new areas of the map and on other occasions, and developer The Bearded Ladies really needs to sort out this out now. Nonetheless, the sound effects and music are very good, with the latter helping immerse you in the game.
Aside from these issues, finding the game map wasn’t as easy as I had hoped. It being buried in a nest of menus makes it not as easy to get to as I would have liked.
None of this detracts from the fact that this is one of the best turn-based, tactical experiences to come out in a very long time, though, and certainly a worthy X-COM style game which anyone interested in this kind of video game will surely enjoy.
Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden
Score: 95 / 100
Available on: PS4 | Xbox One | PC
Reviewed on: PS4
Launch date: December 4, 2018
This game was reviewed using a code provided by the publisher.