Based on the pen-and-paper RPG of the same name and developed by a team that includes Hitman and Payday veterans, Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is a turn-based strategy game that borrows a few mechanics to differentiate itself from the handful of other games in this niche genre.
Set in the now trendy environment of a post-apocalyptic Earth, you take control of a team of stalkers, the heavily mutated guardians that protect the people of the last human city: The Ark. While life in The Ark is undoubtedly harsh – unreliable technology, resource rationing and faction rivalries are constant companions – it is a relative paradise compared to The Zone: the lawless wastelands outside of The Ark where predators prey on the unwary in the ruins of the old world.
Stalkers maintain the fragile security of The Ark by venturing out into The Zone to collect much-needed resources while dodging the ever-present threat of ghouls, the irradiated rotting human scavengers that call The Zone home and who passionately hate The Ark and their pet mutants.
The game opens with two of the three main player-characters (there are further two recruitable characters available as the story progresses), Bormin (a mutated boar) and Dux (a mutated duck), out on a scavenging mission for supplies for The Ark. This opening mission not only acts as a tutorial but sets up some of the story beats that will be developed later on. The stalkers are conflicted as to their role in the society of The Ark, resenting their disposable slave labour status but recognising that they’re only ones able to sustain the base and keep civilisation going.
Returning to The Ark – which serves as a hub area throughout the game – Dux and Bormin are informed by The Elder, the leader of The Ark, that a squad of stalkers has gone missing to the North while investigating a strange craft that fell from the sky. This craft may hold the key to the location of the Eden mentioned in the title, a comparable paradise that could solve many of the problems currently facing the occupants of The Ark. Naturally, the pair are tasked with discovering what has become of the missing squad and the game proper begins.
While not terribly original, the story is engaging enough to propel the gameplay from one map to the next. It flirts with some interesting issues while never being bogged down by them and there are some nice exchanges between the characters as their differing viewpoints rub up against one another. While MYZ has a small cast, the voice-acting is largely good and the PCs are all memorable, even if some of them aren’t the most likable.
We now interrupt our scheduled reviewing to bring you our first X-Com comparison.
It is impossible to talk about MYZ (or any turn-based strategy game, for that matter) without mentioning X-Com, simply because the genre is so claustrophobically small these days and, to be honest, Firaxis did such an impressive job of not only reviving a dead IP but porting to consoles a game/genre that is normally exclusive to the PC domain. But, as advertised previously, the developers (the delightfully named The Bearded Ladies) have managed to create an identity for their game that allows it to step out of the lengthy shadow cast by X-Com and X-Com 2.
Put simply, MYZ is to X-Com what Gears of War is to Gears of War 2. Kind of. Stick with me.
Gears of War is a visceral third-person shooter that follows a squad through a series of skirmishes while hinting at a world at war tantalizingly just out of shot. Gears 2 escalates that vision, showing the true breadth of the conflict through the prism of Delta Squad as the tip of the Coalition spear.
X-Com, and particularly X-Com 2, is concerned with a global invasion and, while combat is settled through localized squad warfare, decisions regularly affect whole countries, and, by extension, the world. MYZ takes that macro stage and contracts it to your squad of stalkers, with player decisions mostly affecting them and, to a lesser extent, The Ark. The inhabitants of this last city are only ever really hinted at – an abstract goal – but this actually helps MYZ in the early stages of the game.
During my first few hours of playing, it felt very much like X-Com on training wheels, and that isn’t any kind of detractor or backhanded compliment. All of the ingredients I love about X-Com are present and correct (even down to near-identical controls) but the wild plate-spinning of the latter is not present to confuse new players – I love X-Com but it can take a long time to get your head around the map and base mechanics. This allows the game to present a much more streamlined gameplay loop that gets the player to grips with the fundamentals of the game quickly and easily.
AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 MOVES
Gameplay falls into three distinct phases: exploration, where you can explore each map for loot and intelligence about any enemy emplacements; stealth, where you can implement ambushes to take out isolated enemies quietly in a bid to remain undetected; and combat, where you… Er… Combat things.
Again in contrast to the X-Com franchise, travelling to the explorable areas of the game isn’t done by dropship or any sort of vehicle (the conceit being that there doesn’t appear to be any sort of operating vehicles left in this world), instead, the stalkers walk everywhere and the ‘world’ map reflects this, placing all of these locations close by to The Ark.
Each of the maps is a detailed diorama that tells the story of this burgeoning new world and, while not huge, they are large enough that they offer up alternative routes for the player should you wish to avoid combat, or at the very least avoid a lot of it. Decaying but familiar present-day objects and buildings are slowly being reclaimed by nature and the knowledge of them has already begun to fade, resulting in some funny interpretations of latter-day technology and culture.
In an interesting wrinkle, exploration takes place in real time, allowing you to move your squad of stalkers around the map to reconnoiter their surroundings, scout out enemy positions and collect any of the aforementioned loot. It’s worth mentioning that the game is meant to be played stealthily as well. Frontal assaults are generally frowned upon in that way that leaves you unable to do any frowning afterward, especially in the earlier stages of the game.
Loot falls into a few different categories: scrap, weapon parts, items such as first aid kits or grenades, artifacts that can be used to unlock perks, and weapons that can be equipped or sold for scrap. Like any good looter, you will be swapping weapons out for your stalkers either through finding better ones or by buying them using scrap, but, if you want to hang on to any in particular, you can use weapon parts to upgrade them as well.
A STEALTHY APPROACH TO COMBAT
Once an enemy is encountered, the player has the option of instigating an ambush but they can also retreat if they have remained undetected. This adds a fun cat-and-mouse element to gameplay where the player gets to decide when and how combat begins, with the game providing bonuses that allow for devastating attacks when they are triggered.
An important difference to X-Com 2’s stealth mechanic is how the game rewards a successful ambush by not alerting the surrounding enemies. While carelessly attacking a ghoul who is close to others will attract them and result in a potentially overwhelming pitched battle, successfully singling out a straggler or patrol returns the stalkers to real-time stealth mode and makes for interesting strategic play, as well as allowing the player to fast travel back to The Ark if things got a bit out of hand.
Entertainingly tense moments are in plentiful supply as you dodge your stalkers around enemy patrols and encampments trying to remain undetected while working out the best place and time to strike. Inevitably though, combat will ensue – be it by ambush or if the player is discovered – and the game switches to turn-based gameplay at this point.
The Bearded Ladies (honestly, I just don’t get tired of saying that) wisely don’t reinvent the wheel here, taking their cues from Firaxis for movement, offensive/defensive actions and cover. If you’ve played X-Com, you will almost instantly be at home and thankfully the wholesale borrowing of the updated ‘action point’ system for combat is handled deftly, making it feel just as precise and satisfying as it should.
Each stalker can equip a loadout of primary and secondary weapons, as well as an item of gear such as a grenade or molotov. Projectile weapons have limited ammo (at least at first) so a backup weapon is a godsend (and reminded me how much I lament the exclusion of pistols in X-Com 2). Head and body apparel completes each character’s loadout, where various items (some hilarious, like a kiss-me-quick hat) can be assigned to beef them up and add extra perks.
Attacks adhere to the percentage system that has snidely punished us all in those other games and the trusty overwatch system has survived intact as well. Stalkers start off pretty vanilla in combat as you might expect but as they level up (as a group, in a player-friendly subversion), you can start choosing mutations for them that will give you more options for ambushes and straight out gunfights.
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO BE WHEN YOU MUTATE?
The mutations for each stalker form a familiar skill tree that sees you weighing up the benefits of particular abilities against each other before choosing one but they can only be activated using the appropriate number of skill points that are granted as characters level up.
In truth, the mutations were a disappointment for me as there are far fewer individual ones than I’d like. Once you start getting deeper into the game, you discover that many of them accomplish the same thing with a different description and animations. I can completely see why the developers would choose to do this as it helps to maintain party synergy regardless of squad composition but it would be great to see some wackier individual powers and also have the character models mutate more as they level up.
Once the characters level up and become more complex in terms of abilities and gear, MYZ really nails that crunchy strategic turn-based combat and satisfyingly rewards combining the stalker’s abilities to take down enemies. I highly recommend pinning a ghoul in place using tree roots so that you can shoulder-charge them into hairy jam against a brick wall, it’s quite breathtaking, I assure you.
Like it’s bigger scoped, better-financed elder cousin, Road to Eden runs on the Unreal Engine which means it has some of the texture popping issues we’ve come to expect from it. That being said, the visuals are generally of a high standard, capturing the miniature feel that I love about X-Com: everything is a little simplified and cartoony but also extremely detailed as well. There isn’t a huge amount of variety in the visual design of the enemies after a certain point but this is balanced out by the main cast who are all pleasantly mutated but not past the point of being able to empathize with them. Again the voice cast helps a lot with this as well.
I played MYZ on an Xbox One X and couldn’t see any extra bells and whistles that would crank up the performance or visuals but it mostly ran well with minimal load times and no visible frame rate issues. It did, however, have the tendency to crash to the dashboard about once a session, so I’d recommend switching the save settings to as often as possible from the outset.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time with MYZ and am always glad for another turn-based game to be out in the world but I found the streamlined gameplay and cast to be a little limiting. It left me wondering if a subsequent playthrough on a harder setting (or with the Iron Man mode activated) would yield any hugely different experiences. That being said, the limited roster can be affected by permadeath, so a second playthrough could easily be stillborn or even more difficult depending on casualties.
Overall, MYZ is a very good turn-based strategy game that can stand proudly in that limited club, and it’s a great entry into the world of the RPG. It’s a world that could easily support a sequel or two and I’d be keen to see what the devs could bring to a second game that would add some variety and scope to the proceedings. It’s also a great gateway game into that genre if you think turn-based games may be your thing, and at £29.99, it neither breaks the bank nor shortchanges you – go play!