Platforms: PC (reviewed), Xbox One, and PS4
We’ve gotten a lot of really excellent turn-based tactics games in recent years. From the resurgence of the XCOM franchise, to the surprise wonder of Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle and the Banner Saga trilogy, there’s been a lot to love for tactical strategy fans that like a dash of RPG stylings over the top. Not to mention other titles like Valkyria Chronicles 4 and indie darling, Into The Breach.
Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is another such game, but this time the innovations lie not necessarily in how you play out rounds of combat, but what you do in between the bullets being fired that makes such a profound impact. I was already impressed by E3 demo, but it’s even better than I expected.
The End of the World
Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is the first video game based on the popular Swedish tabletop roleplaying game, Mutant Year Zero. In this fictional future, the world as we know it today has ended. After being ravaged by climate change, nuclear wars, and widespread pandemics, humanity has fallen and gave way to an uprising of “mutants” around the globe. The Ark is seen as the last sanctuary of safety with the irradiated and destroyed wasteland outside simply referred to as “The Zone.”
In Mutant Year Zero you play as a group of scrappy scavengers that are tasked with exploring the Zone, taking out Ghoul mercenaries, psychotic cult members, and other enemies as you search for a path to survival. The setting is strong and full of potential with a satisfying Fallout or Wasteland-esque vibe, but the execution falls a bit flat.
I just never found myself invested in the story at all. The voice acting is excellent and the characters themselves are full of personality with interested side conversations throughout the adventure, but the actual overarching plot felt about as generic as post-apocalypses can get. There is a clever sense of humor here though that really shines through despite the boring story. Luckily, it’s not all that important or necessary to find enjoyment in Mutant Year Zero as a whole. The real star here is the tactical turn-based combat.
What makes Mutant Year Zero stand out most is that, unlike in games such as XCOM, you don’t get taken back to a base to manage your forces from fancy menus in between combat. Instead, there is just one large, connected world for you to explore. You take your entire party with you at all times, with up to three in a squad at any given time, and go out exploring in real-time. That’s right -- when you’re not fighting, you move around the top-down world in real-time like you’re playing an action RPG.
While in exploration mode, your main goal is to search for loot like spare scraps lying around that act as currency, weapon parts for upgrading back at the Ark, or ancient human artifacts (like iPods and defibrillators) to trade in for augmentations. You’ll also find enemies out on patrol when exploring as well, which is where Mutant Year Zero’s true genius lies.
By monitoring enemy patrol patterns you can do things like set up for an ambush with your entire squad and pick off perimeter enemies using silenced weapons before the rest of the group even knows you’re there. I don’t usually like stealth in games, but when it’s integrated into the rest of the experience so well and has real tangible benefits (thinning the enemy herd) I’m onboard.
In a game of XCOM, Mario + Rabbids, Into the Breach, and pretty much everything else in this tactical strategy genre, you don’t have a whole lot of control over the circumstances of battle. Usually you’re just dropped in and forced to deal with the hand you’re dealt, leaving it to feel a bit unfair at times. That’s not the case in Mutant Year Zero.
Depending on who sees who and who initiates combat first will determine turn order. Unlike in something such as Mario + Rabbids or Dungeons & Dragons where each character has a place in the turn order all their own, you and your enemies take your turns collectively. So you’ll act with all of your squad and then all of the enemies will act.
It’s got all of the expected trappings such as throwable objects like grenades, destructible environments and cover points, various weapons from pistols and shotguns to rifles and crossbows, as well as percentage hit chances and critical chances on every attack. However, instead of running the full gamut of 0-100% chance it simply goes in increments of No Chance, 25%, 50%, 75%, and 100% for chance to hit, whereas critical chance is much more nuanced.
But what is perhaps my favorite aspect of Mutant Year Zero that I hope more tactical turn-based games adopt is the concept of reloading your weapons. Each turn a character generally has two action points. You can move a certain range for one point, then carry out another action like shooting a gun, using an ability, using an item, and so on. Or you can use up both points to sprint further. Some characters can even use a third point after sprinting as well.
But each gun has a certain number of shots before you need to spend an action point to reload it. If you’re not paying attention to the rhythm of combat, this can get you in some really nasty situations. Attacking, such as shooting your gun, will end your turn afterwards regardless of how many points you have, so if you just shoot, you’re basically wasting an action point. You should always reload or adjust your position or do something other than just sitting there shooting. It forces you to think more strategically than you would otherwise.
With a bit of careful planning and patience, you can really tip the scales in your favor just before a full-on fight starts. And this is super important in a game like Mutant Year Zero because it’s incredibly difficult (but never unfair). For example, before you start your game you’re asked to pick a difficulty setting. The scale reads: Normal, Hard, or Very Hard. There is nothing below Normal and permanent character deaths are available on all modes.
It’s a very punishing game and I feel like playing it has, inherently, made me a better strategy gamer. There are dice rolls involved that can give you a lucky break or blow up in your face at the worst moment, but more often than not your positioning, awareness, and planning is what decides battles and that alone is an accomplishment worth commending for a genre that’s so often plagued with purely randomized chaos.