First impressions are often long-lasting. In the world of digital entertainment those first few minutes spent with a new game often inform how engaged and invested you might be one hour, two hours, or several hours later. This is being brought up because the introduction to Mutant Year Zero is not only entertaining and well executed but fantastic across all aspects of what we might think of when contemplating what makes a game, well, good. Art direction, impressive animation, music, story, writing, voice acting, controls, mechanics that speak to your tastes, depth, visual quality, and so forth.
Coming from a small team, the impressive display of all the above is commendable. Not only is Mutant Year Zero aware of its limitations in terms of budget, scope, and narrative ambition – but it excels with everything it has to offer. From the motion-graphic cinematic sequences, to the in-game chatter and banter, to the engaging tutorial that showcases the blend of turn-based tactics, exploration, story, and adventure. Even core mechanics like stealth take on an immersive quality thanks to the interplay with the impressive lighting and animated fog-effects that highlight the beautiful eeriness of the opening over-grown forest meets suburbia environments.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is a story-driven post-apocalyptic adventure where you initially take control of a mutated duck and pig. Weird and charming, it’s also serious and dramatic in a way that makes comparisons to Howard the Duck feel a little one-note. And not as firm as say, a pair of these
. Ahem. Nightmarish vision of the future aside, the world as presented in Mutant Year Zero is one where humans, referred to as the Ancient Ones, have mostly been forgotten. Instead bands of both humanoid and, err, farm-animaloid mutants struggle to survive in a harsh world full of environmental threats, sentient ghouls, and beings with psionic telepathic brain powers.
From a ‘what style of game is it’ standpoint, Mutant Year Zero offers up a different take on the sort of turn-based squad combat of something like XCOM. In that it also focuses on stealth mechanics, exploration, and RPG-progression. Where new equipment and crafting goes pig-hand in pig-hand with skill trees – which are of course, called mutations here. When coupled with the wonderful art direction and narrative elements there’s an old-school isometric RPG quality to the presentation and exploration that feels fresh. A dash of Baldur’s Gate
perhaps, or the more recent Pillars of Eternity from Obsidian Entertainment.
Looking at the score, you might be wondering – so, what’s the problem? Well, the answer to that is not as simple as it might initially seem. Bringing up the sudden spikes in difficulty as the Mutant Year Zero story progresses, and the often-hardcore turn-based encounters where single mistakes can snowball into complete failure – one could easily chalk that up to a lack of player skill or experience with this style of game. Offering up a challenge, especially in this sort of quasi-bleak post-apocalyptic setting is a sound and often commendable design choice. And in that respect the mechanics and nuance of the strategic combat works together with the overall hardcore challenge.
The odd weird behaviour or unlucky dice-roll aside, using grenades, special abilities, stealth, picking the right vantage point, or choosing who to attack first when encountering a group, is all impressive. In a total package that forces you to meet the combat at its strategic level.
Every move counts.
The downside is that this approach can often frustrate when certain encounters need several attempts to complete. Or, entire maps become aware of your presence turning a skirmish into a large-scale war. And this happens in a way that almost matches the sense of relief and accomplishment that you naturally feel after a tense battle. More importantly, the frustration also comes from how the hardcore turn-based combat lessens the sense of adventure, progression, and discovery as you advance through the campaign. Skills, or mutations, feel under-powered as do the new weapons and other items you discover. In fact, the middle portion of the experience feels a little too harsh when enemy health bars and tactics improve dramatically, and often not in line with you own squad’s progression. And that’s from the perspective of searching every inch of every map and venturing into non-quest areas to explore and find whatever secrets or goodies might be hidden.
In the end, if the balance of exploration, character progression, combat, and story felt more cohesive or in harmony then Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden could have easily been great. This is not to say that it simply needs an ‘easy mode’. No, the hardcore challenge tips the scale too far away from the sense of adventure and story and the RPG-like opening moments. Those first impressions. Whether or not this stance is too critical of the deep and well-executed combat, well, who the duck knows? If the idea of a hardcore XCOM-like experience in a post-apocalyptic mutant world sounds enticing, then, hey, this is essential.