Review – Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden

It’s no secret that I love turn based strategy games, especially when they mimic system similar to that of XCOM: Enemy Unknown and the subsequent releases of XCOM: Enemy Within, XCOM 2, and XCOM 2:War of the Chosen. When I heard tell that there was an upcoming tactics game based on the established Mutant Year Zero series, I had to get my hands on it.

Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is set around 2270 in a post-apocalyptic world infested by cults who worship the power of ancient humans. In the middle of the mess stands the Ark, a junk pile converted into a fortress that stands as a beacon of civilization. It’s from here that the Elder dispatches a special breed of mutants known as Stalkers into the wasteland of the Zone. Our story picks up when the Elder sends out two Stalkers to locate Hammon, the engineer that keeps Ark running, after he disappeared during an expedition.

At the beginning of the game, players will only have control over two of the five playable Stalkers encountered over the course of the story. Bormin and Dux (both aptly named) act as the starting characters and will be immediately recognizable to anyone familiar with the game’s marketing. Bormin, a mutant boar with a bad attitude, is the starting tank character that you’ll depend on for those heavy close-up attacks. Opposite him is Dux, a sardonic mallard, who is best as a ranged stealth build. Together, they make a strong starting squad that will get players through the early game and learning curve.

Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden isn’t difficult to learn, but there is a unique real-time component to the turn-based combat that takes time to get used to before players can effectively execute an ambush. Players control their three Stalker squad in real time as they explore the map, sneaking by prowling ghouls that will attack on sight. Thanks to line of sight area indicators, players are aware of when they are in danger and are able to avoid being spotted.

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Dux, the dapper duck, destroys a dirty deerstalker with deadly aim.

Using this tool in real-time allows players to carefully position their squad members to attack from the shadows. When in real time, the squad can be divided up and controlled individually to spread out and cover more ground. So long as players used silenced weapons like Dux’s crossbow, enemies can be quietly eliminated one by one without alerting other nearby targets. Silently killing targets and reducing their overall range of vision and counteract how heavily your squad is outnumbered.

Even as the campaign progresses and you unlock new characters, your squad’s maximum size is three Stalkers but more often than not enemies will cluster together in groups of seven or eight. Players will always find themselves outnumbered and ill-equipped in comparison to the creatures lurking in the zone. The only way to win is to split up the party, place each character behind cover, and take out the stragglers one at a time.

Once players enter combat, Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is more familiar. The HUD will display a highlighted grid over the map that players use action points to plan to their moves, running cover to cover to get as close as possible to the enemy. If characters are hidden when combat begins, they are able to remain hidden until alerted an enemy by crossing into their line of sight, firing with a loud firearm, or attacking without finishing them off. With each kill comes experience and the chance to level up.

When a Stalker levels up, they are awarded skill points that can be used to unlock new skills called Mutations unique to each character. There are two skill trees that run parallel to one another. The more linear of the two trees focuses on a particular trait like health or movement that best reflects how the developers intended for that character to be used. For example, Bormin’s linear trait tree focus primarily on increasing maximum health with each new level, only improving his usefulness as a tank class.

The other skill tree unlocks character specific active skills like Run ‘N’ Gun which allows Bormin to fire his weapon, even after he’s spent all his action points by sprinting. Better suited to his stealth and ranged specialty, Dux can activate Skull Splitter to guarantee a critical hit at the cost of reducing chance to hit by 25%.

Unlike similar games in the genre, powers don’t recharge with time, but instead with kills. Weaker abilities require two kills before they can be reused, where more effective ones require three. This seemingly small difference will ruin you. The average Stalker attack will deal four damage unless dealing boosted by a skill or a critical hit. While you’re slowly dropping their health down from twenty four in small chunks of four, they are tossing grenades and emptying assault rifles by the half dozen. At no point do the Stalkers ever have an arsenal advantage so squads will depend on their special abilities. Targeting weaker enemies to get the easy kill and quickly recharge your active skills is an acceptable approach, but will leave you vulnerable to the heavy hitters.

As much as I enjoy the active skills available to each class, I am a little disappointed by them in terms of theme. The skill trees are designed around each class of Stalker rather than the Stalker’s species. Over time, Dux can unlock the Moth Wings ability that will sprout wings for a turn that will let him gain the high ground for a critical hit. Ducks have wings so I can accept that a mutant duck might have wings of another creature without feeling like it’s too much of a stretch. But Farrow the fox also can also unlock Moth Wings. It’s a useful tool for her character to have as she plays similarly to Dux with an added specialization against mech units, but it stands out as an odd decision. I feel like a defensive or stealth ability alone the lines of burrowing would have been a better choice and made each character standout more.

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Bormin and Boomsticks go together like peas in a pod.

Stalkers will discover loot and scrap scattered throughout the Zone that can be equipped or used to purchase gear upgrades. Scrap and weapon parts can be found strewn about the map like clothes on my bedroom floor, but the good loot is harder to come by. Heavy weapons and armor can be found in crates guarded by clans of cultists and Polis mechs. Each one will take some work to obtain but the ultimate pay off is more than worth it. Armor equipped by Stalkers reduce damage taken and can add bonus effects like additional max health or nullifying critical hits. If it wasn’t for the thick armor my squad collected, Bormin would be filled with more holes than a sponge.

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A hidden haven for the misfits and disenfranchised.

In addition to finding armor, weapon upgrades can get mixed in with scrap piles and crates. Whenever your Stalkers return to the Ark, they can visit Delta’s Fix Pit and spend weapon parts to upgrade the weapon’s tier, boosting damage, range, and critical, plus install weapon attachments that can add status effects like burn. With just a few tweaks at the shop, even the most simple weaponry can become an essential piece in your arsenal.

If you don’t have any upgrades or weapon’s worthy of upgrading, you can head over to Iridia’s Shop. Using scrap as currency, the squad can purchase grenades, weapons, upgrade mods, and first aid kits. Her prices are a bit steep at first, but if you visit Pripp’s Place and give him some artifacts from the old world, he might be able to give you a discount ticket to reduce the costs of those crucial first aid kits. Collecting scrap from the zone can be tedious, but it’s the only way to purchase new items and equipment, which would be fine if it wasn’t so hard to get passed heavy enemies and unlock some worthwhile crates.

But if you want to progress, you’re going to have to kill everyone. This is my biggest frustration with Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden. Enemies don’t respawn so you’ll never be able to repeat an area to grind and level up your stats leaving players with a steep challenge even on easier settings. Clearing an area means it’s cleared for good and when you find yourself in a bind, the only option left is to go forward. If you’re struggling with a series of particularly tough area, your options are to backtrack and hope you missed something, or try a new strategy, and you will struggle.

And that’s what makes the game so frustrating. There will come a point where leveling up and returning to more challenging area is no longer an option. Everything has been explored, you’re out of scrap, and the only way to go is through the crowd of angry cultists who have more expendable targets than you do. And just when you’re about to bring the leader down, Farrow and Bormin bleeding out in the corner and Dux has one clean shot left, that’s when the giant mech rises up from the ground and stomps you to death. You restart and wonder what to do. You’ve cleared the Zone of scrap, there aren’t any resources left to scavenge, and you don’t stand a chance against a big mech, so you reload a previous save, repeat some old areas, spend scrap more wisely and hope you don’t have to backtrack again.

But what makes combat even more difficult are the bugs. If you regularly split up and recall your squad out of hiding, it’s possible that they’ll get pulled out of hiding and then stick to the environment. It’s not the worst thing that could happen until you get stuck in a wall as a zone dog spots you and reverses your ambush on you. It doesn’t happen too frequently, but when it does, it can be devastating and the only solution is to reload an old save. A bug like this should only appear as a one off, but it occurred every several combat scenarios.

Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is an must for fans of tactical strategy games. It’s not without its frustrations and quirks, but combination of turn-based and real-time strategy really makes the game standout from the rest. Forget Battletech, Phantom Doctrine, or Age of Empires. If you get one strategy game this holiday, make it Mutant Year Zero.

Graphics: 8.0

Clean textures and great character details. Frame rate struggles with too much fire

Gameplay: 8.0

A great new take on tactics games that’s worthy of your time. Some bugs currently hinder the experience though.

Sound: 8.0

Music is fairly generic, but excellent character voice overs help bring Stalkers to life.

Fun Factor: 7.5

Seventeen hours passed before I noticed. Difficulty spikes and some bugs currently hinder the experience though.

Final Verdict: 8.0

Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is available now on Xbox One, PS4, and Steam.
Reviewed on PC.
A copy of Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden was provided by the publisher.