After the disappointment of Fallout 76—a game I was initially excited for—I spent a lot of time thinking about what I want from a Fallout game. Then I started playing Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden and had the perfect answer.
Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is a new story-driven turn based tactical shooter from developer The Bearded Ladies Consulting. Within a few hours of playing, I’d equipped a sassy mutant duck with a top hat and fallen head over heels in love with a new take on the post-apocalypse.
All told, Mutant Year Zero was a wonderful surprise and one of the best games I played this year. It manages to be a spiritual successor to both Fallout and XCOM while carving out an identity that is wholly its own.
The game tells the story of a squad of mutant “stalkers” (wasteland explorers) working for the Ark, one of civilization’s last outposts. The narrative follows main mutants Borman and Dux—an anthropomorphic boar and duck, respectively—as they explore the irradiated wastes of a region called The Zone in search of a mythical Eden. The post-apocalyptic story, wacky dark humor, and isometric turn-based tactical combat invoke all the best things about the original Fallout games, the driving ethos of which current franchise developer Bethesda has all but abandoned.
Bethesda never quite captured the tone of the original Fallout series, released by developer Interplay in the late 90s. Classic Fallout is a little wacky and a little dark. It’s both deadly serious, and seriously goofy. Mutant Year Zero tells a straightforward story, and its tone is distinctly that of the old Interplay-era Fallout titles. Dux snarks on everything while Borman holds something approaching reverence for his job as a stalker. Their interactions are often funny, especially when more characters show up, but they’re both covering for a deep sadness that comes from life lived as a mutant in constant danger.
Mutant Year Zero is full of funny and gratifying narrative moments. In the early hours of the game, Dux and Borman discover an iPod and argue about what the ancients used it for. They keep finding these devices scattered throughout the Zone—strange bricks branded with a fruit—which they decide the ancients used to test the freshness of food. Dux remarks that it’s no wonder the ancients died off if they couldn’t tell what was fresh just by looking at it.
It’s a small beat that does a lot. It establishes the rapport between Dux and Borman while lampooning conspicuous consumption and filling in the lore of the game. Mutant Year Zero is full of these little interactions and many of them spring up in the quiet moments when you’re exploring the Zone.
Here’s another example. Later in the game, Dux comments on the crew’s inability to find another mutant duck corpse. He’s been looking. Mutants like Dux and Borman aren’t common in the world and they know there’s something wrong about their existence. They’re heroes full of existential dread who fill up the horrifying world they inhabit with snappy dialogue and touching interactions.
The world of Mutant Year Zero world is fully realized and interesting. It borrows heavily from the Soviet science fiction novel Roadside Picnic—the inspiration for the 1979 film Stalker—and creates a world that’s both lush and beautiful as well as dangerous and irradiated. The Zone is green and vibrant, but full of strange beasts and dangers. It’s less Fallout 3 and more Annihilation—the world is gorgeous, but also surreal. Its rules change and the characters are often dealing with forces they don’t understand.
The world of the ancients is a mystery, but so is the Zone, and so is the existence of Dux and Borman. They don’t know themselves and, despite their ability to survive the Zone, they don’t know the world either.
Mutant Year Zero’s substance is as strong as its style. It’s a tactical turn-based shooter with light RPG elements and a focus on exploration and positioning. Generally, it plays like a less punishing and more open XCOM. As players move their squad through the Zone exploring and collecting resources, they’ll encounter enemies and engage them in combat. Like in XCOM, combat is tactical and turn-based. The map consists of squares and each person in combat takes turns moving on the map, firing, throwing grenades, and using powers. Every shot Dux or Borman take has a percentage chance to hit. Distance to the target, cover, and environmental factors such as smoke can raise or lower that number.
But Mutant Year Zero takes cues from the gameplay of XCOM without copying its many frustrations. If a mutant is close enough to an enemy, for example, they get a 100 percent chance to hit. In XCOM, a player could be one step away from an enemy and still miss. The other great change compared to XCOM is stealth and positioning.
Mutant Year Zero is a semi-open world. XCOM randomly generated its encounter maps, but Mutant Year Zero’s team handcrafted theirs. This makes it possible for players to see enemies before they engage them in combat and use silenced weapons to pick off the stragglers. A clever player can make an encounter easier by taking out enemies on the fringes before engaging. There’s also a greater emphasis on pre-combat positioning.
During an early encounter in a subway tunnel, I moved my mutants along the edges of a large group of enemies, picking off the stragglers as I went while t dangerous high level enemies lounged in the center of the subway. After I’d killed the outliers from stealth, I positioned my three squad members in a circle around the remaining ghouls. When I was ready, I used a sniper to initiate combat then sent in two backup members to mop up. The dangerous pack of enemies went down in a few turns, and all because I’d used stealth to winnow down their numbers and then carefully planned out the encounter. It felt great.
That’s Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden all around—it feels great. There’s so many games set in a post-apocalyptic scenario clever design, vibrant colors, and a little personality really stands out. The dark humor, isometric style, and strange world kept me coming back to Mutant Year Zero in a gaming season packed with great big-budget content.
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