I had no idea that Mutant Year Zero has been an active franchise since 1984. Celebrating the 30-year anniversary of the original tabletop role-playing game, Swiss gaming studio Free League Publishing produced a revised version, spanning 272 pages in 2014. Much like how Polish developer CD Projekt Red emerged to disseminate its country’s pride and joy, Wiedźmin, or The Witcher across the globe, Swedish developer The Bearded Ladies acquired the legal rights to develop Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden.
The presence of makeshift, secondhand weaponry dominates Mutant Year Zero. When shot, all units will flinch, but only organics bleed a little while suffering a final hit during a slow-motion death. The portrait of player-characters who die will change into a bloodied mess reminiscent of “losing faces” from the old SF2 days. This is all appropriately T-rated, or PEGI 16. What might catch the unsuspecting by surprise though, is some of the macabre scenery decorating the most forlorn zone. Skeletons, blood trails, and dead bodies are pervasive in this post-apocalyptic atmosphere, often in more detail than some of the active sprites.
At first, Mutant: Year Zero deploys of some clever euphemisms. For example, Dux, a duck, says phrases like “I don’t give a duck!” Yet the language progressively grows coarse over time. Phrases such as “Blow me, or “Say the name, jizz-wipe” become more frequent. Near the end of the game, if another character defeats an enemy, Dux will begin to say, “You are the s–t!” and “F—k it.” While there are not any “G-Ds,” characters do call upon the name of the Lord as a catchphrase rather than a prayer.
The only alcohol that players will actively encounter here comes in the form of Molotov cocktails. Characters talk about having a grog or two back at home base where there is a pub, but that is the extent of things.
The game is almost completely clean except for the suggestive reference here.
With humanity as we know it all but extinct, those who survived the apocalypse look upon them with reverence. Characters refer to their predecessors as “the Ancients,” and treat the most mundane items as artifacts of great significance. Some survivors hold the Ancients in apotheosis by worshipping them; to tell more would be spoilers.
War. War never changes.
Oh my bad! That phrase was made famous from another post-apocalyptic game. Even so, the quote is apropos for Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden. Players will begin the game by taking control of uniquely gifted individuals called Stalkers—not to be confused with S.T.A.L.K.E.R., though its themes are also relevant—who travel a land designated as “the Zone” while in search for scrap used to keep home base, known as the Ark, running. Its chief engineer Hammon, also a Stalker, has gone missing, and the didactic Elder wants him back. For this search and rescue mission, he sends the best two he has: a mutant boar named Bormin, and Dux, a mutant mallard duck. Along the way, they encounter Hammond’s crew of Stalkers who disclose that he was captured by Nova Sect, a faction wanting to probe their prisoner’s mind to find the location of Eden in the hopes of unlocking the ancients’ secrets. Our Stalkers set off to save Hammond, though the Elder tempestuously admonishes them for believing that a thing such as Eden exists; others disagree…
The Bearded Ladies and Funcom promote Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden as a game similar to XCOM, a title dwelling in the depths of my backlog. Even so, I do not approach this game completely unarmed, for I know tactics. Though before entering into the grid-based battle map, players are free to walk around in a third-person style adventure mode. This freedom serves as a key function in the game, for not only does the scavenging for scrap, broken weapon parts, and artifacts take place during this phase, but it is also where players can optimally pre-position their Stalkers before initiating a fight, hiding behind various types of cover within striking distance of an ideal target.
Very early, Road to Eden advises players on the necessity of circumventing enemy encounters that appear insurmountable. The game then requires players to struggle through a few tough fights at a point where the mechanics of the game are not quite clear. For example, the first brutal fight takes place during the investigation of Hammond’s home, where players will be punished for going in guns blazing or failing to hastily and covertly dispatch targets of opportunity—usually those positioned and patrolling the outskirts of an area of interest—lest they alert nearby friends to make an already difficult fight impossible. Thus, it will be crucial for players to live up to the expectations of what it means to be a Stalker by adopting a stealth-first approach to combat. I would be content with this soft requirement if The Bearded Ladies had included more than three silent weapons in Road to Eden (technically four, but it is a duplicate). While players are limited to playing only three of the possible five characters at one time, and therefore only three silent weapons are ever necessary, variety would have been welcome nevertheless.
Consistent with the skill-check that is the fight at Hammond’s home, mastery of consistently and discretely vanquishing ideal targets in a single turn is the primary goal during Road to Eden’s early game, and remains an important tactic throughout the entire campaign. In a strange method of balancing, the rate at which characters gain experience is generous; seemingly at least one of my Stalkers levels up after every kill. Yet where I could best allocate the skill points achieved from these levels does not become clear without some trial and error.
As Bormin and Dux are extant mutants, new abilities are naturally called “mutations,” and they are a key feature in Road to Eden. In one example of choosing the wrong mutation, I rushed to acquire what appeared to be a signature ability for Dux in the form of the moth wings as seen in trailers, but I discovered that despite their formidable appearance, he can only move one tile while using the ability, and scenarios with exceedingly high elevations come much later in the game, when his actual signature skills, Alpinist (+50% crit chance when shooting from high ground [elevation]) and Chameleon (become invisible until you attack) become attainable. Road to Eden categorizes mutations in the degrees of major, minor, and passive, with the only discernible difference between them being the number of kills necessary to refresh them: zero for passive (always active), two for minor, three for major. At any rate, one mutation clearly
breaks the game outshines the others, and that is Bormin’s Hog Rush; he charges through even solid walls—making noise if he does—to incapacitate a target enemy for two turns. This mutation is so strong that Road to Eden at times feels balanced entirely around its availability, because more than a few fights would be nigh impossible without it.
Remembering that major mutations require three kills to recharge (two considering the foe who was the initial target of this ability), to advance in the mid-late game, I found myself picking a target of opportunity in one location while using Hog Rush, then retreating to some other location in the game’s map to prey upon something like a four-hitpoint weakling in order to attain the two requisite kills for recharging Hog Rush so that I could confront stronger enemies.
In other words, it becomes unwise to kill everything upon first sight, and players will need to leave some soft targets to return to later in the game. As players gain experience for new mutations and the necessary scrap and broken weapon parts to upgrade for stronger weapons, even enemies that were avoided because they were once strong will eventually need to die so that essential mutations refresh to kill even stronger enemies. The gameplay loop, then, becomes just that: a loop. Woe be unto players who killed all the easy enemies upon the first encounter, for their skills will not have the cooldowns necessary to dispatch the most difficult foes in a timely fashion before becoming overwhelmed by additional enemies. Compounding my criticisms of the gameplay loop is that if players trigger a battle, they cannot escape until after all alerted enemies are defeated. Even after running what feels like two miles away from the spot where I was seen, I either have to kill the alerted, or reload.
This “meta” causes Road to Eden to lose its sense of flow and cohesion. Because I would not have enough weapon parts to upgrade my silent weapons to kill enemies during the midgame in one turn, or, because Hammon’s Hog Rush was on cooldown, I would have to frequently fast travel between zones while seeking the targets of opportunity I have described earlier, while also hoping that more scrap or weapon parts have randomly spawned. I would then return to a difficult area, use Hammond’s Hog Rush, kill, and repeat. I did not feel as though I was playing the game as intended, but I was playing the game as it was designed.
All this sounds very video game-y, right? Principally being required to take Hog Rush or either of the powerful yet inaccurate Skull Spitter (100% crit chance -25% accuracy) or Twitch Shot (fire twice using only 1 AP. Negative 25% accuracy) mutations limits variety in order to play Road to Eden optimally. This describes my experience on medium difficulty, where every member of my squad heals to half health after every fight. Playing on this difficulty is already challenging, but The Bearded Ladies indicate that the hardest difficulty featuring stronger enemies and no free healing is the game’s intended experience, and I do not have time for that. For those who do, health packs can be purchased from a shop at the Ark, but every item purchased requires precious scrap, though as the name implies, scrap is rare. But I actually did not struggle with managing my scrap to buy weapons or grenades which I hardly ever used due to their raucous nature in a game with an emphasis on stealth. Weapon parts, though, are beyond precious, and I do not believe that there are enough in the game. I managed to finish Road to Eden without fully upgrading my preferential kit, an accomplishment to be proud of, but one that was not as fun as I would have liked.
This does not mean that Road to Eden is not fun at all. On the contrary, minus the late game backtracking for targets to refresh my mutations, I had a lovely time. The turn-based combat appeals to my affinity for strategy, and finding the correct approach to infiltrate a ghoul-ridden hospital provides immense satisfaction. Once players round Road to Eden‘s learning curve— understanding mechanics such as how the cover system impacts percent-to-hit rather than damage reduction, the distance the team can silently drop an enemy without alerting its allies, or the impact that key mutations such as Selma’s immobilizing Tree Hugger (disables enemy movement in an area of effect for 1 turn)—then the game begins to hit its stride.
Road to Eden‘s greatest strength is its atmosphere. The Bearded Ladies know how to create a believable post-apocalyptic land pulsating with the lore of its previous inhabitants–the Ancestors. Subtle details such as skeletons frozen in an embrace on a stranded lifeboat or the overgrowth of flora on the decommissioned husks of robotic sentries convince me of the reality of this world that could be a potential future. “Forest of the Ancients” sets the mood with a very 80’s Terminator-like electronic reverberation before the music shifts into its intensified combat theme—yes, Road to Eden features dynamic music tracks depending on if players are in exploration or combat mode! “The Deep Zone” similarly begins soothingly before accelerating into what feels like Reese chucking makeshift pipebombs while being chased by a T-800—appropriate for a game featuring haphazard weapons such as a rifle that resembles a Super Soaker, or a silenced pistol held together by duct tape. “The World Ends,” a song that plays during an important elucidation, parallels its name with crescendoed instruments blaring. “The Nova Sect” hosts a foreboding theme that sometimes appropriately makes me think of snow. “Cultlands,” “Deep Zone,” “The Forbidden City” and one additional track that would be spoilers if I mentioned it are all excellent, too.
The writing is also superb—AAA quality in fact. Hats off to whoever thought it was a good idea for characters to seek items that are either commonplace or retrograde in our time, only to revere them as precious artifacts while completely misconstruing their utility. This bit of innocence provides significant levity in a grim world. Bormin, in particular, is hardened, and I thought his weathered wiseguy voice acting would bother me as too much of an archetype, but it fits the character and the setting. Dux’s derisive VA is likewise outstanding, winning me over as my personal favorite character. The Bearded Ladies save the best for last with Farrow and her trash-talking Cockney English. When the squad encounters a new area or point of interest is among the highlights of Road to Eden; they will speak their minds when an indelibility that reminds me of the character quotes from Baldur’s Gate 2. I could listen to quotes from these characters indefinitely.
Indubitably, many of Road to Eden‘s motifs are not precisely original, though this criticism could be considered anachronistic if one takes into account the tabletop game from the 1980s. Perhaps when Chris Avellone was growing up, he played Mutant Year Zero or something similar to it, and recalled the ghouls when writing the story for the Fallout games in the 1990s; the Enclave strongly reminds me of Road to Eden‘s insidious Nova Sect. The last bastion of civilization that is the Ark parallels Diamond City, Megaton, or Rivet City. A few locations in Road to Eden even resemble Fallout vaults! I am fond of these sci-fi reference points, and this game offers enough of its own charm to win my affection.
Review code generously provided by Funcom
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The Bottom Line
Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is the kind of game where developer The Bearded Lady's excellent writing and prudent choice of genre preserve this game as one worthy of purchase and play despite its borrowing from a variety of sci-fi sources.