When I review a game, I can usually tell within the first few hours if I’m going to enjoy it or not. For the most part, games show their hand early on because developers are well aware of the time investment they require. Since games can be a slower burn compared to other media, they try to hook players in quickly so they stick around to the end — or for a couple dozen hours at the very least. Unfortunately, my life has become increasingly hectic over the years, so if I’m not invested after the opening hours and tutorials, chances are my opinion of the game will only decline from there.
The Bearded Ladies Consulting’s debut tactical RPG, Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden, was the exception to the rule. After my initial hours with the game, I was not convinced. I thought the animal-mutant characters were charming and the story interesting, but the actual strategy mechanics seemed shallow, I did not find the stealth gameplay particularly useful, and the difficulty felt unfair. I was having a bad time, and I was prepared to pass harsh judgment upon it. But as I spent more time with the tactics and played around with my team’s abilities, I started to feel a spark. Maybe there was more than I was missing or too naïve to see. After hour 10, we were enjoying ourselves as we got to know more about each other. At the twenty hour mark, we both wanted to admit we liked one another, but neither of us wanted to be the first to say it. Hour 30, I’m in love. Sweeter yet, hour 30 happened on a Friday. Although I still found the difficulty to be unfair in parts of my playthrough, most of my misgivings melted away as I dug deeper into the lore and mechanics of the game.
Based on the Swedish role-playing game, Mutant, by Target Games, Mutant Year Zero is the re-imagining of the original pen and paper game which has you take control of several intrepid Stalkers, mutated beings brave enough to traverse the decimated Zone. The Bearded Ladies Consulting refers to the world as “post-human”, an apt — albeit on the nose — descriptor for the devastation that has wrought the Earth. Years ago, the Red Plague, a vicious disease that causes its victims to die in a puddle of their own blood, wiped out most of humanity. What’s left of the human race, and life, in general, is either dead, dying, or mutated. The rest of Earth’s inhabitants are terrifying abominations like ghouls and zombie dogs, or reprogrammed robots that think everything is a threat. Thankfully, the bleakness of its plot is overshadowed by the smart writing and memorable characters.
There’s Bormin, the rugged, shotgun-wielding, Kurt Russell-esque Boar that doesn’t have a funny bone in his body. Bormin doesn’t go anywhere without his trusty partner Dux, a sailor-tongued duck with a penchant for one-liners and sniper rifles. Then there’s the citizens of the Ark — humanity’s last bastion of civilization — like Pripp, a surly shop owner that peddles in ancient items so he can learn more about humanity; Iridia, a badass weapon and supply dealer that looks suspiciously like Anna from Overwatch; and Delta, the quick-talking gear head that upgrades your weapons. For as dour as MYZ can be at times, it’s surprisingly teeming with life and personality, not to mention humor as you explore the Zone and dig into the ancient lore.
As I explored the Zone and got deeper into the cavities of abandoned civilization, I started to stumble upon ancient items, the objects coveted by Pripp. At first glance, these items look mundane, but when I read each description, I always found myself smiling at how smart and clever the writing is. The term “ancient” in video games often denotes a mysticism that urges to be discovered and worshiped by its denizens, while in MYZ, ancient items are typically household or everyday objects we normally don’t think twice about. Gadgets like a beer tap handle are revered as a touchstone of yore when humans freely walked upon the Earth. After dispatching a group of ghouls, I investigated a nearby house and found a “far looker”, or, as we call them, a telescope. Bormin and Dux then entered into conversation over the meaning of the item, what it could possibly do, and the rumors they’ve heard about these so-called far lookers. The writing contextualizes the passage of time from the once functioning world to this post-apocalyptic hellscape by transforming normal items into otherworldly pieces to a much larger puzzle. It’s a playful way of realizing an otherwise violent universe.
When I wasn’t digging around derelict homes and hotels, I was fighting any number of bad guys that wanted to eat me or worse (I’m not sure what’s worse than being eaten, use your imagination). Before you actually confront the bad guys, the game puts an emphasis on their stealth mechanic so you can get a tactical advantage. As you approach an enemy, they have a large ring around them that displays how close you can be to them without being seen. Although I found the stealth mechanic to be bland at first, it eventually became far more useful than the game lets on. If your characters have silent weapons, you can sneak up on enemies and have the option to ambush them before alerting the rest of the map. I didn’t use the silent weapons at all because their range was either low or their critical chance was inconsistent. Instead, I preferred the louder, bigger gun approach. It’s not the smartest decision, but stealth isn’t all about silent weapons.
One of my characters has a charge attack, which knocks out opponents for several turns. I found that if I could get close enough to knock a particularly annoying enemy off the board early, I could then move my players into optimal positions to start the fight, and the enemy would still be down one member. In other instances, I used mind control to take control of an enemy, moved them so that they were surrounded by their cronies, and made them throw a grenade at their feet. At the beginning of my playthrough, stealth seemed unnecessary and tacked on, but after experimenting with character abilities and positioning, I started to see its utility.
Once I actually got into combat, that’s when the gameplay expanded even more, though not without trial and error like stealth. At the onset, each character can use their turns to move, shoot, defend, overwatch (which operates the same as it does in XCOM), throw a grenade, heal, or use an ability. Throughout my first few fights, the game felt less like a tactics game and more like I was forcing my way through every encounter by the skin of my teeth. I had no idea how the strategy component worked, and the game doesn’t do a good job at instructing you. The difficulty did no favors, either, as I felt like I was constantly thrown into situations where the odds were stacked against me.
True to classic RPG form, this game is hard as hell. Starting characters have minimal health and their weapons are awful, so it’s up to you as a tactician to outwit opponents. Listen, I think I’m as smart as the next guy when it comes to battle strategy, but there were some fights in MYZ that seemed downright unwinnable. Enemy abilities far outclassed the few my characters’ had, and their weapons did more damage. I don’t know how many times I missed a shot that had a 75% chance to hit and then an enemy would one-shot me from across the map. Not to mention, the performance on the PS4 went from alright to Wasteland-2-on-Switch-level bad, making it difficult to smoothly move around the game board when I was trying to analyze my options. For the first few hours of my playthrough, it felt challenging for the sake of having a challenge — until I started to mix things up.
After, oh, let’s say the 50th time I got my ass handed to me, I took proper stock of my items, character abilities and traits, and weapons. I studied my opponents more, scouting each map carefully before I engaged, and even then, made sure each teammate was in good cover. I swapped around weapon mods to take advantage of each character’s specialty. In my playthrough, Bormin was my tank that got the enemy’s attention and dealt heavy, close range damage, while Dux picked off enemies from afar with a high critical rate. I realized that some environments are destructible (something the game also doesn’t tell you), and used that to my advantage when I wanted to deal damage to multiple enemies at once. If an enemy was behind cover, I could use Bormin’s grenade launcher to knock down the wall and expose them. I started playing smarter, and I realized that it wasn’t the game — though in some cases it was because of bad tutorials — it was me. As I started to utilize everything the game had to offer, I saw how dense, complicated, and satisfying it is.
If this isn’t a lesson in not judging a duck by its beak, then I don’t know what is. Sure, there are times when I get a bad impression from a game and it continues to get worse, but I am so happy to be proven wrong with Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden. The gaming market is oversaturated with gritty tales that do nothing for world-building or writing, simply existing so they can pontificate philosophical quandaries without ever actually saying anything useful. Playing MYZ was refreshing. Apocalyptic settings that refuse to fall victim to hopelessness and despair, that are bursting with personality and smart humor, are rare. This game started as a slog for me, and now it’s probably going to be on my Game of the Year list.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A copy was provided by Funcom.
Though it can be difficult to get through the beginning hours, Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is a clever, funny, and exciting tactical RPG.