Take a tactical turn-based strategy game, splice in a post-apocalyptic RPG, season liberally with stealth mechanics then irradiate until mutated to taste, and the result would be Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden. By taking the standard turn based combat of games like XCOM and adding active elements of reconnaissance and ambush, the resulting “tactical adventure game” from Swedish developer The Bearded Ladies ends up being greater than the sum of its parts.
Based on the Swedish pen-and-paper RPG game, Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden takes place in a world devastated by both plague and nuclear war. The last remaining refuge for mutants, The Ark, relies upon Stalkers to travel the endless wastelands around them scouting out sources of scrap metal and old technology in order to survive. It is a beacon of safety and civilization in the irradiated wasteland known as “The Zone”, and without the Stalkers brave enough to explore its ghoul infested wastes, they would surely perish. Out of the chaos a new threat rises, the fanatical Nova Sect, plotting to steal the secrets of the ancients and to wipe out The Ark once and for all.
The main characters, a man/duck mutant named Dux and a man/boar mutant named Bormin (get it?), are two such Stalkers in the middle of scouting sources of scrap as the game begins. Through cutscenes and in-game banter between, they quickly establish their characters and provide a window into their understanding of the discarded wreckage of our civilization that lies in ruins all around them.
Early in the game, Road to Eden highlights the main features that set it apart from venerable turn-based strategy games like XCOM. While not in combat you have real time control over your movement, either moving as a group or splitting up and moving each character individually. Approaching an enemy will reveal its range of awareness which will cause you to be detected and enter combat, however you can also crouch down and turn off your flashlight, moving slowly in order to reduce their detection range and allowing you to approach closer, even to hide behind cover in the area in case the enemy moves closer while you plan your ambush. Once all of your Stalkers are in position you can trigger the ambush to get the drop on your target, and if you are prepared with silent weapons like a crossbow or silenced pistol, it is possible to eliminate specific targets without alerting other enemies in the area. Unlike XCOM 2, which also introduced an ambush mechanic, this is not a one-shot ability. If you remain undetected, you will then be returned to real time movement, allowing you to press your advantage further. This will radically change your approach to engagements, putting a greater emphasis on scouting each skirmish before entering combat, and reducing enemy numbers strategically before charging in to clean up the remnants.
At the end of combat, characters earn experience as a group, ensuring that even characters who are not in the active party are not left behind. When characters level up, they will earn points to spend on their mutation tree which is unique to each character. Dux has many abilities suited to his role as a sniper, from mundane bonuses such as improving your chance for a critical hit, to more fantastic mutations like the ability to temporarily sprout bat-like wings and fly to otherwise inaccessible elevated positions. Bormin is more of a skirmisher, featuring the ability to draw enemy attention, rushing enemies to knock them down or destroy their cover, or temporarily hardening your skin to grant immunity to attack for a single round. Bormin can even unlock the ability to devour corpses on the battlefield to regain health, which is equally thematically appropriate disgusting. These abilities can be unlocked immediately in the field, allowing players to immediately exploit their advantages as they carefully whittle away at the enemy.
Defeated enemies will drop loot, either scrap metal which is used as currency, weapon parts which are necessary for upgrades to your firearms, or other equipment such as medikits or grenades. Looting their bodies is key to survival, as is thoroughly exploring every corner of every area before proceeding, as resources are scarce and you will need every advantage you can get going forward. Maps are linked in a hub and spoke design with optional areas, hidden caches of loot, hidden encounters, and rare artifacts to be found.
More Mutant Than Mutant
Once you reach The Ark you gain access to the shops, allowing you to spend your hard earned scrap on armor or weapons, perform upgrades to your weapons or add attachments, or trade artifacts for special bonuses. Each character can equip armor on their head and body, which will usually improve their health or add a certain number of armor which reduce the damage value taken. It can also add special effects like granting immunity to being knocked down or mind controlled, or improving the throwing range of grenades. Armor can also freely be traded among all your mutants, so you can hand pieces down or keep them in your inventory for special resistances against certain enemies.
Weapons require weapon parts to perform upgrades, which can either be scavenged in the field, or you can break down any obsolete weapons in the shop. Each weapon usually starts at Level I and can be upgraded twice to Level III, improving damage and critical damage with each upgrade. This will take a lot of weapon parts to do, and breaking down even a fully upgraded weapon only returns a small fraction of your expended weapon parts, so choose how to spend them wisely and always be on the lookout for weapon chests in the field. Sometimes you might luck out and find a Level II or III weapon right off the bat, which could save you anywhere from 60-90 weapon parts. Most weapons will also have slots for a scope or damage module, which allows for further customization to your needs. Attachments will grant effects such as additional damage, critical chance, electrical or burn damage, knockdown effects, or more. Each character can carry two weapons at once, allowing the player to have a silent weapon for ambushes and a primary weapon for when the scrap hits the fan.
Finally you can trade unique artifacts to the local bartender Pripp, who will reward you by favoring you with his old Stalker stories, granting the entire party permanent and powerful buffs. During exploration you might find notes from previous Stalkers that contain clues about the location of these ancient artifacts, leading you to their final resting place. Every time you find one of these artifacts, it is worth traveling back to The Ark to trade with Pripp immediately to get the benefit of his wisdom.
Combat will be familiar to anyone who has played other tactical games, with each character having a movement range defined on the map grid, objects or walls providing either partial or full cover, targets in range will display your chances to hit and targeting them will show all the calculations that affect your shot. An interesting wrinkle in the way that Road to Eden handles ability cooldowns though, linking them to a specific number of kills rather than just regenerating automatically over time. No more hanging back and spamming your power ability for an easy win, you’ll have to take the fight to the enemy in order to progress. Also of note, it is possible to cause two factions of enemies to fight each other by baiting them into combat while you wait to eliminate the victor. As the saying goes, the best way to win a one-on-one fight is to be the third to arrive.
Unfortunately while the game presents the stealthy ambush as more of an optional mechanic, as you progress further and further into the game it will be come a necessity to survive. Even on the lowest difficulty, enemies usually appear in significantly greater numbers and can easily overwhelm the party if engaged haphazardly. It can be especially problematic if the player has not been making manual saves, or saving over the same slot repeatedly and accidentally paints themselves into a corner. This can present a massive difficulty spike if the player is unprepared, and potentially force them to “save scum” just to survive an encounter or else revert to the autosave and lose their progress.
Against such (occasionally) overwhelming odds, its also odd that your party is limited to only three characters at a time. Over the course of the adventure you will recruit additional characters bringing your total to five available mutants, but only Magnus presents a clear advantage over any other. His Mind Control ability wreaks havoc in large groups when you can turn a Tank or boss character against its own allies, also drawing return fire away from you. Paired with his Telekinesis Shield which has a 25% chance of blocking any attack completely, it was an easy choice to rotate Selma out and never look back. The other mutants have some unique abilities as well, but mostly they are the same powers from the early mutants in different configurations. Farrow arrived so late in the game that I never even bothered to upgrade her equipment, instead I traded her weapon for a crappy gun and broke her rifle down for parts.
Finally the ability to only activate three abilities at a time for each character was disappointing, particularly since the mutations are further subdivided into major, minor and passive mutations, and only one of each type can be active. While this might have been a conscious choice to improve accessibility by reducing the number of rarely used or highly situational abilities, I find that possibility difficult to reconcile in the face of the overall difficulty level of the game. To take an already sparse skill set and set such prohibitive limits on their availability seems unnecessarily restrictive and a step backwards from the tactical flexibility that XCOM’s skill tree offers.
There were some other small issues like the inability to use special traversal abilities outside of combat like Moth Wings or Frog Jump to set up an ambush from a raised position, or the subtitles being very small and very difficult to see when shown over a light colored background, but these were small complaints that did not dramatically affect my enjoyment.
The one area where Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden definitely wins back some points is the style of the game. The characters are beautifully drawn and animated, especially in the hand animated cutscenes that add a lot to the grungy atmosphere of the game, reminiscent of a story that might have come out of the pages of 2000AD. The weapons are well designed and fire with a satisfyingly destructive report, with each having a slightly improved look as they are upgraded. The music is subtle and haunting at times, militaristic and threatening during combat, always complimentary without overwhelming the atmosphere of the game. The environments are highly detailed and interesting, with each area hand crafted rather than being randomly generated. I found myself wanting to be able to zoom in more on the characters and environment, just to get a better look at all the work that went into bringing this horrible existence to life.
Despite some missteps, Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is a refreshing new direction for turn-based strategy games. Removing the strategic and base management layers of the game, allows Road to Eden to focus on the story and development of the characters. The hub-and-spoke system of map exploration grounds the experience, giving the feeling of a real place with its own unique characteristics that must be conquered. The environmental storytelling and occasional snippets of banter between the characters while exploring went a long way to evoke the feelings of mystery and loss felt by moving through the ruins of past greatness without understanding. Though the combat does not reinvent the wheel, it is still well executed and enjoyable, and definitely feels refreshed by the addition of stealth and ambush mechanics. Combat must be approached strategically and with careful planning to ensure success. I was forced to think about every encounter, exploit every terrain advantage, and only strike with the greatest advantage possible, hoping that I hadn’t missed anything hiding in the darkness beyond my meager flashlight.
Review code supplied by publisher.