Post-apocalyptic stories seem to be a dime-a-dozen these days. For that reason, it's incredibly important that any new tale set around the aftermath of the end-of-the-world brings something interesting and unique to the table in order to set it apart from the norm. When I saw that Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden, a game centered completely around XCOM-style turn-based combat, was having a go at a post-apocalyptic, I was worried. After all, games of this kind typically don't have a story worth caring about.
Thankfully, I was pleasantly surprised by Mutant Year Zero's writing, which is propped up quite a bit by the game's exploration mechanics. Typically, real-time exploration and turn-based combat are never used in tandem, but that has now changed. And while Mutant Year Zero isn't perfect, it's still a compelling experience that kept me playing for hours on end.
About this review
This review was conducted on a Windows 10 PC equipped with an Intel i7-8700K processor, an NVIDIA GeForce 1050Ti graphics card, and 16GB of RAM, using a review copy of the game provided to Windows Central.
Story and setting
Like almost every other post-apocalyptic game, Mutant Year Zero is set on the remains of an Earth obliterated by nuclear weapons. Although nature has reclaimed the planet, mankind seemingly went extinct, and now only two groups occupy the world: strange humanoid animals called mutants, and savagely powerful predators called ghouls. Eden, a fabled location of peace and prosperity, is something that the mutants strive to find; the ghouls wish to hunt the mutants to their last.
You start Mutant Year Zero controlling two mutants: Dux and Bormin. The former is a duck while the latter is a boar, and both are fighting to survive and maybe even reach the fabled promise land of Eden one day. This is essentially the story, and while the plot itself isn't creative, the concept definitely is. A world in which several normal animals have become human-levels of intelligence due to mutations is interesting and unique, which solves the painfully commonplace issue of post-apocalyptic worlds feeling too similar to one another.
Mutant Year Zero strongly goes against what you've come to expect about post-apocalyptic settings.
Each of the characters in the story are well-written, though I do wish that they were fleshed out more overall. There's certainly a degree of tongue-in-cheek humor present in the narrative considering you're playing as weird animal people, but the characters had solid enough foundations that I would have liked to see the writing take itself seriously more. The comedic elements can come across as quite jarring, given the serious apocalyptic tones elsewhere. Despite this, though, they were still pretty enjoyable, with my favorite in particular being the sassy wise-quacking duck, Dux.
By and large, Mutant Year Zero's gameplay is split up into two styles: real time exploration, and tactical turn based combat. The former encourages you to inspect every nook and cranny of the world, finding scrap, equipment, and bits of environmental storytelling, while the latter is similar to XCOM but with some unique elements.
Exploring is somewhat necessary for finding gear, but if you prefer to get right into the action, you can, for the most part. There are tons of items and details hidden in the world, though, so I highly recommend trying to see everything that it has to offer. As you go through different locations, your characters will comment on things they see, which helps contextualize certain things and gives insight on the world you're playing in.
The real meat of the game, though, lies with the combat system. Like with XCOM, your "units" (the characters) and enemies can take cover, utilize high ground, and use special abilities during combat turns. One unique thing about the game, though, is real time stealth. As your party walks around, you have the ability to control when the first shot is fired because you can sneak by enemies and take up advantageous positions outside of their sightlines. This is particularly useful for long range characters like Dux who prefer to snipe from afar, though everyone benefits getting the drop on their opponents.
Additionally, the majority of the game environment is destructible, which makes each encounter feel even more strategic. Not all cover is equally durable, so it's important to take note of what your characters are hiding behind as well as the cover of your enemies. A fallen tree trunk can take a lot more punishment then a flimsy wooden board, for example. Also, entire walls can be shot out, which opens up completely new types of flanking angles. Bormin's charge ability is great for doing this, and I'd be lying if I said that I don't love having him smash a wall down before blasting a ghoul in the face with a shotgun.
It would have been appreciated if the game had new aiming mechanics that broke away from the stale percentage chance-to-hit norm, but this downside is completely offset by the dynamic and engaging systems that Mutant Year Zero brings to the table.
Presentation and performance
Visually, Mutant Year Zero is a very appealing game. A post-apocalyptic world that teems with natural life needs to somehow be both vibrant and dreary at the same time, and the game's aesthetic manages to capture this look excellently. While the greens, yellows, and reds of Earth reborn are gorgeous, the shadows and atmosphere overall have a very dark and unsettling aura about them that creates a sense of unease.
The aesthetic of the game manages to somehow feel both lively and vibrant, as well as dark and unsettling.
In terms of performance, the game ran flawlessly on my system, with no frame drops or screen hitching at all. That kind of perfect performance is very very rare in this day and age, and I commend the developers of Mutant Year Zero for managing to achieve it. In our testing on Xbox however, we found that the frame rate could be a little erratic at times, with mild stutter in some areas. The unlocked frame rate can, on occasion, hit the 60 FPS mark on Xbox One X, but it might have been smarter to lock it down to 30 to grant a sense of smoothness, or add separate graphics modes.
Should you buy Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden?
If you enjoy XCOM-style turn based combat, post-apocalyptic worlds, and enjoyable characters, then Mutant Year Zero is the perfect game for you.
- Well-written story and characters.
- Intriguing world to explore.
- Excellent gameplay systems.
- Beautiful visuals.
- Comedic elements come off as jarring sometimes.
- Percentage-based hit mechanics feel a little stale.
The inelegant blend of serious themes and wacky comedy, and the use of what I feel are dated strategy game aiming mechanics prevent Mutant Year Zero from being truly perfect, but it's still an incredible experience that you can't miss.
Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is available now for $35 on PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4.
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