by Quinn Levandoski
reviewed on PC
Duck... Duck... Lose!
I died a lot while playing Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden. Like, a lot a lot. It’s not that the game is that unbearably difficult, either (I was playing on Hard, which I thought was just right), but instead that I was approaching the game all wrong. I wouldn’t call myself an expert with the action point-based strategy genre, but it’s also not my first rodeo. I’ve put quite some time into XCOM. I’ve played, and loved, all of Harebrained’s Shadowrun games. I’ve dabbled with Breach and Clear and praised Warhammer 40K: Space Wolf in my review late last year. While cursory knowledge of how to approach these types of games certainly helps, it also hinders, and my stubborn side meant I didn’t remedy my misguided efforts for far too long. In most of these games, gameplay consists of some combination of talking, upgrading and then walking around waiting for the next squad of enemies to come at you and initiate combat. That’s not how things work in the world of Mutant, though, and, as its name implies, you’ve got to embrace change if you want to succeed.
Despite the wacky vibe the game gives off with its Boobop and Howard the Duck-looking protagonists, Mutant actually plays its cards pretty straight. It plays them pretty familiar, too, with the general settings and backdrop a bit more familiar than I would have liked. The basic description reads like something that could describe any number of post-apocalyptic stories. It’s the far future, and humanity has gone and almost wiped itself out. Modern society has been forcibly abandoned, with (supposedly) last settlement of humanity occupying a large fortress called The Ark (groan). You play a Stalker, someone (er... thing?) brave, skilled or dumb enough to venture into the strange, dangerous surrounding zones to fund valuable or useful resources (Roadside Picnic, anyone?). Your base is a pretty classic somewhere-between-Fallout-and-Borderlands hodgepodge of sketchy looking buildings, and most of your enemies are fairly generic baddies. I know the game is tied to the lore of the decades-old tabletop game it draws inspiration from, but I still couldn’t quite shake the feeling that I’d seen so much of it before.
Toning it Down
What was surprising was the game’s general tone. Again, with cover-characters and main protagonists looking as silly as they do, one could be forgiven for expecting a bit more slapstick and humor, but, for the most part, that isn’t the case. The world is tough. Our Stalkers do crack jokes, but they also have very real confrontations with loneliness, fear, self-loathing and doubt. This is hardly a character-driven game with deep, overarching drama, but these are characters more akin to people you might expect to find in The Road than Looney Tunes, and I really dug it.
This generally somber tone is all made even better by the fact that, when it does pop up, the humor hits far more than it misses. While I rolled my eyes pretty hard every time someone quipped a variation of “What the duck”, item descriptions and references to the old world (aka ours) are quite a hoot (or do I say quack?). Early in the game, for example, Dux describes a stereo as something that used to be a big bomb, and that pushing the red circle button would make it explode. It’s called a “boom box”, after all, a name I can’t deny sounds at least slightly foreboding. An iPod and its logo give them pause as well, as they exchange confusion about why anyone would need a fruit scanning device.
Sneaking and Shooting
It’s important to remember that in Mutant combat isn’t always a requirement. Sneaking past groups of enemies doesn’t just save time and life points, it’s often necessary. It’s not just a matter of play-style, it’s a fundamental element of the game’s design. Sometimes there’s no way around a good old-fashioned shoot-out, but, even then, stealth plays a big role. While fights are sometimes triggered events, most encounters out in the wild are started by the player (either intentionally with a button press or accidentally through being seen by an enemy). With careful planning, you can split up your party to run some recon and determine exactly what you’re getting yourself into. Positioning is a must, and playing each of your Stalkers to their strengths before the fighting actually begins is often a bigger tactical challenge than the actual altercations. Furthermore, some weapons make no noise, and you’re able to pick off isolated enemies without alerting their associates. Again, this isn’t optional. While I will admit that the stealth sometimes seemed a bit hard to read, with it not always being clear exactly where I will and won’t be seen, the blending of genres is generally a smooth and pleasing one. Many of the areas you’ll need to get through just aren’t winnable with a brute-force rush, meaning speed, stealth, brawn and terrain mobility are all equally important factors to keep in mind as you build your squad.
Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is a good time and deserves to be checked out by fans of the genre. It isn’t something most will be able to jump right into with immediate success, but it’s a game that has a lot to offer for those willing to take the time to learn its ins and outs.
The blending of genres works, mutants are fun to upgrade, writing and voice acting are solid, and the humor regularly lands.
Largely banal plot and world, the stealth can be a bit finicky.