What do you give players that felt XCOM was just too easy? The Bearded Ladies Consulting want to answer that question with Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden. Bringing the tactics and turn-based combat of games like XCOM together with real-time stealth and exploration, Mutant Year Zero lets you pick the time and place of your next encounter. Just be careful because if you missed some vital information you might be sending your team to certain death.
It has all gone to hell
The game is set in a post-apocalypse near future where humanity has been wiped out by the ravages of war and plague. A new dark age grips those who remain, with little information about those that came before surviving. Humanity, as we know it, is referred to as the Ancients and most modern day tech is unusable or used in some rather humorous ways. The writing team has created some amazing flavour text and names for items, places and the like from present day which should get a chuckle or two. One last bastion of civilisation remains and those that live there rely on stalkers to leave the safety of the Ark to venture into the ruins of the Ancients to find provisions and tools. That is where you come in, stalker.
Army of three
One of the easiest ways to make any turn-based game harder is to limit the action economy of the player. Even though you will meet other survivors in your journey, your squad size is capped at three, despite the story making it sound like you venture around in a group. I was hoping that eventually there would be an upgrade of some kind to the max squad size, but it never happens. As a result, I really just ended up never changing away from my initial pair of Dux and Bormin, and the first other stalker I picked up. By the time the next one came along, I was so happy with how everyone did their part that I didn’t want to change up. As a result of the small squad size, fights can stay difficult just by outnumbering the party again and again, forcing you to make use of stealth kills of some units to thin the herd before finding a good spot to ambush from. Sadly this also meant that I never really did any fancy pincer maneuvres in my ambushes, because you want everyone close together enough to avoid one character being picked off too far away from a medikit. Some levels are just screaming for attacks on multiple fronts, with good sniper nests or protected areas on multiple sides that would split the enemy forces, but you don’t ever get a chance to try that out.
Difficult for difficult’s sake
If you enjoy playing a game on its absolute hardest setting, the feeling of being smashed and crushed again and again until you learn the optimal builds and methods to do everything until you work it out and finally overcome the obstacle. If you enjoy that style of playing games, then Mutant Year Zero is for you and you can skip the rest of this section. For anyone else though, get ready for a fair amount of frustration.
Many of the guns have a very short range and accuracy falls off very quickly meaning you need to get up real close to guarantee that shot or get ready to load your last save in a hurry. In general, every area is teeming with enemy threats, almost all of which will either be alerted to gunfire or an NPC calling out for assistance and you can very quickly be overwhelmed. To counter this you can sneak around, get an idea of enemy strength and numbers and find a patrol or straggler to take down before making your main assault.
In the early levels, this is easy and Dux can take down stragglers alone with a well-aimed crossbow bolt. But shortly afterwards you will start facing enemies that require all three squadmates to attack with fully upgraded silent weapons and that might still not be enough. Because enemy health goes up with level but your damage is almost exclusively tied to your weapon, there is a big disparity from level 10 onwards that makes killing stragglers a dicey affair. Sometimes you will need to use special abilities to take down a straggler, and on harder difficulties, this will leave you without those skills when the proper fight starts.
There was a good chunk of time during playing this where I had to sneak around and avoid whole zones to pick off one straggler, scavenge for loot, then go back to an old zone to mop up.
There was a good chunk of time during playing this where I had to sneak around and avoid whole zones to pick off one straggler, scavenge for loot, then go back to an old zone to mop up. While the idea of exploring or even being able to circumvent enemies entirely was really fun, you couldn’t really leave the enemies behind as you needed their loot and XP further down the line. I think a more gradual increase in enemy health and armour would be great, and maybe even a way to bypass armour or disable it temporarily.
Mutantkind is our only hope
Mutant Year Zero, despite attempts to avoid the pitfalls of other tactics games, falls into the same trap of the endgame losing its sting compared to the early to middle sections of the game. You get all sorts of mutant powers to help control the battlefield, your gear finally mitigates enough damage for a bigger firefight and your characters crit often, decimating enemy numbers. I found the last big fight underwhelming thanks to the bonuses I had, which may have been dumb luck or a great ambush position, but I struggled way more in early fights against Zone Dogs and Ghouls guarding nice piles of scrap. It could also be that I picked up everything not nailed down in every corner and hideaway that I could find.
The exploration of zones makes it feel much more alive and varied and adds moments that are calmer than the pressure of making choices in the tactics and there is a thrill when you realise you can whittle a pack down a bit before engaging, or when seeing the enemy is guarding a precious artifact that will get you some great bonuses, or a shiny looking chest.
Time spent with Bormin and Dux is well worth it. Between their banter as you explore the ruins of humanity, the odd explanations they have for old tech and buildings and delving into the lore and issues of the Zone.