Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden Review
A grid-based strategy game that lacks a greater purpose
Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden can be a disheartening experience. It is frustrating in its unforgiving combat, much in the same vein as Divinity: Original Sin; unflinching in its random combat rolls, punishing players with random percentile checks as you miss three shots in a row that you were supposed to have a 75% chance to hit. Games like these always feel cold to me, as I imagine a dispassionate DM rolling dice out in the open for everyone to see, callously killing the character you’ve spent hours creating.
Mutant Year Zero is definitely that kind of frustrating game, but it also feels incomplete. The grid-based tactical combat employed here has been used effectively in many other games like X-COM: Enemy Unknown, Torment: Tides of Numenera, Rabbids Kingdom Battle, and Wasteland 2 - but all of those games are supported by deep RPG mechanics, puzzles, engaging stories, multiplayer, or other mechanics that help support the core gameplay. Mutant Year Zero either lacks these secondary mechanics or has under-developed them and thus it feels stretched thin, employing a strange structure with too few original ideas to keep it engaging.
Developed by The Bearded Ladies Consulting, Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is described as a tactical adventure game by its publisher, Funcom. Players spend their time either exploring a post-apocalyptic wasteland, searching for supplies to stay alive, or clicking their way through the challenging combat sequences. It tells the story of two mutants, anthropomorphic characters Dux and Bormin, who live in the supposed last remaining city for humans and mutants - the Ark. The duo makes their living as Stalkers, adventurers who venture out and explore the ancient ruins of civilization, bringing back necessities needed for the Ark to survive. Their lives change when one of the most important Stalkers, Hammond, goes missing and they’re sent to try and retrieve him, finding the scattered members of his crew along the way and enlisting their help.
While the concept of the story isn’t bad, its execution is lamentable with the pacing being the real culprit. So much time is spent in long combat sequences, that any momentum from the story quickly dissolves, leaving the narrative in an increasingly stale state. The stakes are never properly established, the characters never get a chance to breathe, and almost every conversation is an exposition dump or someone saying “Look at this weird, antiquated device. Let me make a funny assumption about how it was used before the apocalypse and then wink at the audience.” When it’s not clumsy, it’s boring.
Perhaps the biggest problem with Mutant Year Zero is that the gameplay feels thin. As stated before, other games that have used this combat have added other elements to break things up. Other games employ side-quests, puzzles, extended dialogue sequences, base-building, or upgrading, but Mutant Year Zero has almost none of that. There are some simple RPG elements, where you can upgrade the mutations of your character, but they all share similar skills that are laid out in a different order on their tree, making the upgrade path dull. While a certain ability might be made immediately available to one character for five skill points, the same ability is at the end of another character’s skill tree for fifteen points - this system dilutes the value of the skills so there isn’t a lot in the way of new mechanics to work towards. This also means the characters don’t have much differentiating them. I basically used the same three characters for the entire game because their low-level abilities were so over-powered.
The abilities themselves are fairly standard. There’s a skill to control vines and ensnare enemies, preventing them from moving, which is pretty similar to the bog-standard “entangle” spell from D&D and other role-playing games. There is another ability that allows a character to get an extra move phase of their turn - which is also pretty standard in these games. Others, like flying or the ability to bull-rush an enemy and knock them prone, are a little more inspired, but there are so few abilities overall, there is little room for creativity. The different skills are emblematic of how Mutant Year Zero feels trapped between a cRPG and a strategy game, incorporating elements from both genres, while missing other integral mechanics.
The in-game economy feels broken. You can collect scrap out in the world and use it to buy items at stores, but the price of everything is so steep that even late in the game I still couldn’t afford to buy most weapons or upgrades - all I could ever get were some simple grenades and medkits, which you can find plenty of while exploring and those few items encompass the entirety of what you can find. It’s not that the store’s prices make the game harder, it’s that you can find enough supplies for free outside of the Ark that makes the store almost superfluous.
The guns are the most expensive and by the time you can afford them, you’ll likely also have them in your inventory. There is the carrot of a good idea with the weapons in that some are silent and can be used to stealthily kill your enemies. The problem is that if you don’t take the enemy out in one term, they’ll alert the rest of the guards and unless you’re upgrading those weapons consistently, they’ll become less and less useful - and there just aren’t enough weapon parts (the upgrade currency) to go around. The guns themselves are all pretty standard, but the art for them is creative. You have your shotguns, pistols, crossbows, sniper rifles; it’s a typical arsenal.
Beyond the long, drawn-out combat, the game lacks substance. It wants you to explore the world but doesn’t have anyone or anything to discover. You can see the seeds of sidequests. Occasionally, you’ll come across a rogue group of enemies who are sitting on some extra loot, but it all boils down to the same scenario - go to a place and kill everyone. There are no special items to collect or mini-bosses to fight, no secrets to discover or rewards for going off the beaten path. It’s a weird structure, more like a cRPG than a mission-based strategy game like X-COM, and it never really works in the game’s favor.
This means Road to Eden is doubling down on its core combat mechanics, hoping that the tactical elements are going to be enough to keep players hooked through the whole 15-20 hour play time and while they’re pretty good, they aren’t that good. The encounters themselves are drawn up pretty nicely. The game does have a cool mechanic where you can explore the world in real-time, and when you discover enemies, you can go into stealth to sneak around, figuring out where the enemies are and plan an ambush. This might mean using silent weapons to pick off enemies without raising the alarm, or starting a fight that’s far enough away from other enemies that no one will hear you. The transition from this stealth/exploration mechanic to tactical combat is well-executed. Setting up your characters in hiding places around a map is a key element to winning a battle, and when your plan comes together, it’s quite satisfying.
A big problem is the line of sight system that’s used in the combat. There are only six kinds of feedback you can get when shootings an enemy - a chance to hit that ranges between 25% and 100% in increments of 25, or no chance to hit with the target being out of range or out of your line of sight. The game lets you know what your percentile chances are before you move, but the problem is when you’re trying to think multiple moves ahead or positioning a character before you’ve triggered combat. Trying to intuit vantage points on a map is difficult and I’d often think I had given my character a great opportunity to spring an ambush, only to find out that what I thought was a great shot actually had a much lower chance to hit, or sometimes no chance at all. The most frustrating aspect of the combat is the overwatch option, which has a character hold their shot until an enemy moves within range. The problem is that it usually means that the character is taking a low percentage shot and almost always misses - I never saw one of my characters hit on overwatch, making what should be a useful tool worthless.
The enemy AI is also weird. As the difficulty gets cranked up, enemies have less and less regard for their well-being. So even if you’ve hidden your characters behind cover, your foes will suicidally bum-rush you, revealing themselves out in the open, but also ensuring that they're going to take some of your health in the process, soaking up your medkits. With lower difficulties, enemies tend to make more baffling choices, like running away when they have the upper-hand or staying in overwatch when they could get closer to take a shot. The AI never find a good balance for the difficulty - they were either suicidal or buffoonish.
It doesn’t help Mutant Year Zero that the post-apocalyptic aesthetic has reached saturation. The generic crumbling wreckage of a world-gone-by has been done better in other games. It’s a little fun to see the humanoid animal aspect, but it’s not enough to feel fresh. It’s a dark game, meant to be oppressive and lonely, but it never deviates from that feeling. The game is hitting one generic note over and over and doesn’t change things up. Even at the climax, when you’ve reached your destination, the game doesn’t alter from the cold, muted color palate. It contributes to the feeling of emptiness at the heart of the game.
That emptiness runs deep through Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden. The game is desperately lacking a carrot to keep players invested, and that’s going to make the difficult combat all the more off-putting. The stealth is a nice addition, but there’s not much else. If you’re going to make your game unforgiving, that’s all well and good, but you need to have a compelling reason for players to see those trials and tribulations through. There certainly is a lot of fighting on the road to Eden, but there is nothing worth fighting for.