Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is the first major project from Swedish developer The Bearded Ladies Consulting, a small studio mainly comprised of former IO Interactive employees and Payday designer Ulf Andersson. With the studio’s past of small but well-received puzzle games on the PlayStation 3’s online service, this survival take on the turn-based strategy genre is as unexpected as it is refreshing.
The game opens with the heroes, anthropomorphic duck Dux and the boar-faced Bormin, wandering through a forest gathering supplies. Most of the land in this post-apocalypse is covered with a thick toxic clouds, and only mutants such as Dux and Bormin can survive on the surface. A tiny outpost of humanity called the Ark remains, and they depend on these supply runs for survival. Upon returning to the Ark, Dux and Bormin discover that Hammon, the only person who knows how to fix ancient technology, has gone missing. They vow to search for him, and following the missing man’s footprints leads them into a deeper mystery than they could have dreamed. A crashed satellite has convinced Hammon that more of humanity is still out there somewhere, and he’s determined to find this Eden.
Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is a pleasantly colourful dystopia. A soft colour palette of greens and blues transitions into a stark white for the snowy areas, and gives a visual sense of progression to the game. Plants have reclaimed the land, with moss growing over broken down cars and vines twisting through shattered window panes. An isometric perspective is used to allow a clear view of the battle, with items in the foreground made invisible when needed. The world is reactive to the player’s movement. Birds and insects scatter as the party approaches, puddles splash when stepped on and bushes rustle when passed through. The environments feel alive, not just a back drop to the next battle. The music is minimal with a strong emphasis on synthesiser, particularly when in the Ark which has a strong cyber punk aesthetic.
In-engine storytelling is used masterfully in Mutant Year Zero: Return to Eden. Major events, such as the apocalypse that wiped out humanity, are depicted with beautiful hand-drawn cut scenes. The rest is expressed with how Dux, Bormin, and friends react to the world around them. They chat about the past and whether Eden exists, bicker over the use of ancient technologies they find (a boom box is clearly a bomb!), and compliment each other on good tactical moves. In between battles, Bormin might recount the legend of Izza and Fala, the star-crossed lovers whose resting place is full of treasure. When said resting place turns out to be a battered pizza and falafel shop full of enemies, the disappointment is palpable. The conversations flows naturally and build a great rapport between the characters. Importantly, the story can easily be ignored or skipped for those who just want to get straight to the action.
Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden makes no secret about its XCOM inspirations. Combat is turn-based on a grid, with each unit having two action points to use on various actions such as movement, shooting, using items, and character-specific abilities. Choice of cover and line of sight will affect a unit’s chance to hit, and careful positioning is key to survival. Genre staple abilities are available from the get go, such as overwatch (taking a shot during the enemy’s turn at anyone who gets too close) and dig down (increase defence during enemy turn), and character specific abilities are gained from levelling up and making choices through their respective skill trees.
Unlike many other games in the turn-based strategy genre, the roster in Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is tiny. The player starts with Dux and Bormin, and three more units can be recruited over the course of the campaign. Only three units can be in combat at a time, but the whole party earns experience after each fight so no one is left behind. While any character can use any weapon, the different abilities they learn make them better suited for certain styles of combat. Dux is an excellent sniper with bonuses to silent take downs and a large movement range. Bormin with his run and gun approach favours shot guns. Selma, Magnus and Farrow, the other three units, have strengths in thrown weapons, psychic attacks, and critical hits respectively.
The enemies in Mutant Year Zero: Roads to Eden are varied and numerous. Slack-jawed ghouls are dispatched easily, but before long variants pop up that can summon reinforcements, throw Molotov cocktails, use psychic powers to direct others, and a variety of robots re-purposed from ancient technology stomp in.
What makes Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden‘s gameplay unique is the real-time movement between battles. A red glowing circle shows the enemy’s field of view, and each of the player’s units can be individually moved into a better strategic position before initiating the battle. Solo enemies can be picked off with silent crossbows and pistols without alerting nearby enemies, making the following battle easier. Exploring the world also yields precious resources in scrap, weapon parts, and ancient artefacts, which can be used in the Ark to upgrade weapons and purchase items.
The game offers three difficulty modes: normal, hard, and very hard, with an ‘Ironmutant’ permadeath option available for an even greater challenge. The different difficulties alter how much health is regained after battle, how much damage enemies deal, and whether cooldown abilities reset after battle. The modes are named appropriately; this game is tough. Roughly an hour into the game’s campaign, a huge difficulty spike occurs in The High Road map. The party is vastly outnumbered, three new types of enemy units are introduced, and a medical robot quickly revives the few ghouls that the player does manage to take down. What initially appears to be an exercise in being hard for the sake of being hard is actually an important lesson on how the game is meant to be played. Battles do not have to played in a specific order, and charging straight for the objective marker will make things harder than they need to be. Heading down a side path from The High Road leads to a mini-boss battle that, while still being difficult, is more level appropriate. Sneaking around enemies in high level areas to find more scrap and weapon parts will leave the player better equipped for the battle they were stuck on. With carefully timed movement, the tough High Road battle can even be avoided entirely. The heart of Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is literally about picking your battles, and makes the desperate struggle to survive for these characters very real.
Depending on difficulty level chosen and familiarity with the genre, Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden will take about 15–20 hours to complete. While on the short side for a turn-based strategy game, the length feels just right to tell the game’s story and keep battles from becoming repetitive.
Playing on PlayStation 4 demonstrates that Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden was clearly designed with the PC version in mind. Much of the text is too small to be comfortably read when displayed on a television screen, and the menus are navigated with the left stick behaving as a cursor rather than tabbing from option to option as is customary. Several crashes occurred when accessing the Ark, and stuttering occurred often in the same screen, which is odd since the area is not particularly graphically intense. The game also has a few incidents of slow down, especially in the snowy areas and battles with a large amount of enemies. Some of this lag may be due to a launch-day PS4 failing to handle the intensity of the Australian summer, but players are advised to keep several manual saves just in case.
Those unfamiliar with the turn-based strategy genre, and XCOM in particular, will face a steep learning curve. While 2017’s Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle may have held the player’s hand too much, Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden inversely throws the player straight into the deep end. While feeling overwhelmed is a big part of this style of game, the sparse tutorials could have been better implemented to welcome newcomers. Combining XCOM‘s strategy with real-time stealth and an intriguing story, The Bearded Ladies has created a clever, fresh take on the turn-based strategy genre. While the game may be a bit intimidating for newcomers, or too short for veterans, the tight gameplay loop and great pacing make Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden an instant strategy classic.