Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden Review

In the near – or very far - future, the humanity has driven itself to a complete annihilation. As if a red plague, born from a carefree exploitation of the nature and wiping through Earth, wasn’t enough, what was left of us vanished in a nuclear war. Ark, suspended in an atmosphere and led by enigmatic Elder, is the only safe haven for a remaining population – as long as you don’t venture outside it, as the surface is populated by ghouls, vile offspring of contaminated humans. Enter stalkers who risk their lives scavenging goods to support Ark and its inhabitants. Especially a mutant makes a fine stalker. They have enhanced abilities to survive in the field with and no one cares too much if they don’t come back. Even mutants themselves don’t know where they come from.

A post-apocalyptic world is becoming passé in gaming with so many titles sharing a similar, oppressive premise. What makes Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden stand out, though, is its setting and the cast. The game takes place in the southwest Sweden and stars gritty, anthropomorphic animal mutants, giving off a strong European comic book vibe. Mutant Year Zero is based on a Swedish pen-and-paper role-playing game from the 80’s, which got its animal mutant expansion only a few years ago. However, the video game adaptation doesn’t involve role-playing but is a mix of turn-based tactical combat, popularized by the X-COM franchise, and a real-time adventuring.

A walking, talking and chain-smoking wild duck Dux and his more pensive but violent friend Bormin, a wild boar humanoid, are returning from a typical scavenging trip when they find out that Ark’s resident tech-head Hammon has gone missing. The safe haven won’t run without him so the dynamic duo sets their goal to find him. It turns out that Hammon was on a trail of Eden, a mythical paradise unaffected by the plague and the war. Soon, Dux and Bormin meet up with Selma, a stalker who, while human, is as mutant as they are. The thrilling threesome embarks on a titular road to Eden, equally bewildered and excited.

A majority of Mutant Year Zero is spent on real-time exploration through a lush, desolate Sweden with smooth direct controls over the team members. They pick up scrap, a local currency to buy goods with, and weapon parts that are used to upgrade different firearms. Artefacts, things left behind by the long-forgotten Ancients (that’s us, the people of today’s world) are found here and there, and are worth looking out for. The world so familiar to us is completely alien to the mutants, and much fun ensues when they try to guess uses of such gadgets as ghetto blasters and iPods. Ark’s barkeep turns artefacts into abilities, like extra grenade space or added critical hit chance against mechanical foes.

Of course, the surface world is mostly hostile, with ghouls and robots patrolling the overgrown premises and zealously guarding their strongholds and valuables. Turning off the flashlights makes the characters enter stealth where they are harder to detect. You can see foes’ fields of vision while in the real-time mode so you know how to avoid their glare and gain vantage points to ambush them, cueing in tactical turn-based combat. Each character has only two action points to spend on moving, shooting, throwing, and using their unique mutant abilities, like rushing to an enemy to knock them out or immobilizing them with tangling roots. All kinds of attacks always end a turn, so you can’t skitter away after shooting. It’s somewhat restricting but the enemies, who come off as very aggressive, have the same limitation. You just have to live with the rules and eventually learn to use them to your advantage.

Ballistic lines, hit percentages and shield icons visualize hit directions, hit chances and cover value of a place you’re about to move to, so it isn’t just a guesswork when you’ll be in safe and where you have better chances to attack from. Reading the combat venue, learning the enemy behavior and creatively exploiting the mutations are keys to victory. Only one mutation per each class - passive, minor and major – can be valid at a given time, and it requires kills to unlock them in the combat. You can save the game anywhere, anytime, even in mid-fight (not in the Iron Mutant mode, though), and that comes handy if you fail to harvest enough enemies before a full-blown combat situation. Donning a suitable equipment can make a big difference. They look cool – or goofy but cool - and have funny item descriptions, as such everyday things as hockey helmets are strange to the baffled mutant cast. Most importantly, though, different equipment has hefty bonuses. A vest granting its wearer an immunity to critical hits is in a whole different class than items with something like “+0,5% increased hit chance” so many other games in the genre sadly offer.

I may have sketched the overall game mechanics by now but nonetheless, my personal road to Eden had a rocky start. Very, very rocky start. The PC review build I originally got kept freezing in most inappropriate places, like in mutation skill trees and narrative cutscenes, halting any progress. It turned out that a pre-Ryzen AMD processor and a Nvidia GPU was a game-killing combination, something the developers (now) acknowledge and try to patch up. To fix the problem, I got a PS4 review code. If you can afford a choice between a PC and a console version of the game, go for the latter for a hassle-free experience. So, I started over and got to admire the beautiful world design, brimmed full of character, quirky details and vivid lightning, from a big TV screen. Much better than hunching over in a PC gaming corner!

When I got going for good, I really liked the real-time adventuring, exploring verdant but eerie everyday surroundings, overgrown into a muddled melancholy. The characters kept amusingly commenting what they saw, guessing what might have been the purpose of crashed metal birds (we known them as planes) or houses on lots of wheels (that would be train cars). In all this decadent prosperity, the combat felt like a necessary evil. That’s why it seemed like a reasonable idea to sneak past enemies as much as I could and focus on the world itself. As a Nordic myself, it sank well with me to see these familiar settings that must look somewhat exotic to everyone else.

Until a wall rose up. My team was only at level 10 and suddenly faced level 20 enemies in a main story quest location. There was no way to go past them without engaging combat, and with such a big level difference, fighting them was out of question. So, what now? Had I really played the game so wrong, or did the game break its own promise it laid out in beginning through a dialogue between Dux and Bormin that led me to believe that evading the enemies was a plausible option? Why, then, the game made it so easy to avoid combat but still allow progress? I had no other choice than return to those areas where I had sneaked past foes and start systemically eradicating them to level up. So much for my stealth maneuvers, I thought. Only, it turned out that stealth was now even more important as I carefully isolated enemies to pick them off one by one. A character who’s hidden in the surroundings is invisible inside enemy’s field of vision, which allows ambushes at a point-blank range. Here’s a pro-tip: clear the ghouls around the crashed plane in the map “The Fallen Angel” and loot Mimir Needle Gun. Now all three characters in the team can have a silent weapon!

Eventually, I over-leveled those troublesome mobs that made me go back to the square one, and could continue further down the road to Eden. Along the way, I picked up two more characters to round up the mutant mob: Magnus, a human telepath and Farrow, a fox chick whose crit-heavy abilities suited my playstyle and really made me appreciate the meticulous combat gameplay. I merrily carried on with a trio of Selma, Bormin and my new best friend Farrow. I never touched Magnus and felt sorry for leaving Dux to the sidelines but in the narrative, the quintet adventures together through the harrowing perils of southwest Sweden. Whenever I felt that the novelty starts to wear thin with so many identical set pieces laid out, new terrifying adversaries popped up to keep me on my toes.

It’s immensely satisfying when things go according to a plan like a clockwork. Then again, the tight combat system doesn’t leave much room for improvisation, and saving and loading is a viable tactic. If you can’t get an isolated target down with a combination of each character’s stealth attacks in one turn, all hell can break loose when it alerts all nearby enemies to your presence. Thus, it’s a good idea to load a saved game and hope for critical hits. While it hurts the flow of the gameplay, it can make the life easier. In the last, epic battle of the game, though, I didn’t resort to reloading a better situation. Despite overwhelming odds (my stealth approach failed big time!), I struggled through it with a taste of blood in my mouth and sweat pouring down my forehead blinding my sight (well, not really, but it felt like that!). Luckily, I always play games in such a manner that I try to save resources, like medical kits and explosives, as much as I can, and now it really paid off.

The PC version’s technical issues and the fact how easily the game invites you to approach it too adventurously bring Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden a notch down from a super-stardom. What remains is cracker of a game with a quirky outlook, exciting exploration, punctual tactical combat and a sublime atmosphere. I also liked how the game is tight and linear, taking only some twenty hours to see it through to its shocking revelation. I much rather take a compact, rich experience than something that’s padded to no end. Be warned, though, that the road to Eden is not something to tread on lightly, as it can take a formidable effort to overcome all the troubles in the mutants’ way. Kudos also for a genuine single-player experience with no forced online features glued on top of it.

Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.