About the first two things that will strike you when you fire up Mutant Year Zero are the sardonic duck man and the grizzled pig guy. Some might be put off by a pair of protagonists who seem inherently ridiculous – especially in a medium that has traditionally favored white men with guns – but these misfit mutants are filled with personality. They and a few other freaks they meet along the way, carry Mutant Year Zero from also-ran tactics game to one of the more memorable experiences of 2018.
Based on a lesser known tabletop RPG of the same name, Mutant Year Zero depicts a post-apocalyptic world where the only thing scarcer than resources is true knowledge of what the world used to be. The duck guy and boar dude are Dux and Bormin, two stalkers sent from the Ark on the orders of the Elder to search for a missing engineer. It’s not long till they’re off on their own quest: to uncover the mystery of an ancient settlement known as Eden.
Mutant Year Zero is a grid-based tactical game in the vein of recent classics like XCOM 2. But where XCOM 2 rewards the use of every last bullet, every action point and every drop of blood from your operatives, Mutant Year Zero emphasizes the value of stealth and securing tactical advantage before shootouts even begin. The result is a game that’s a series of deliberate, tactical scenarios rather than a brisk series of murders and character progression.
This is it, the apocalypse
The setting for Mutant Year Zero is, at first blush, rather cliché. A post-apocalyptic world in which the remnants of mankind and its resources are treated with quasi-religious reverence is a vein of world building that’s been tapped many times before. There’s a bit of world building here and there, extolled mostly through text and audio diaries, some of it through in-game dialogue and occasionally via non-animated cutscenes that center around key developments.
The beats of the game’s plot never feel vital, unfortunately, as they lack in urgency and don’t really go anywhere. Wrapping up the campaign – after fighting bands of deranged cultists, cannibal marauders, and abandoned robots – feels a tad bit anticlimactic. Even if you didn’t see the final revelation coming a mile away, you might feel, as I did, like it doesn’t really change or impact the lot of your characters. I’m led to wonder if the game ran out of development budget to arrive at a more satisfying conclusion, or hope that DLC is on the way to see it through to a more logical narrative terminus.
Thankfully, it’s your stalkers who make up for the lack of storytelling payoff. They don’t say a lot, but what they have to say and how they say it gives Mutant Year Zero more personality than you’ll find in other tactical games. In addition to Dux and Bormin, you’ll meet the psychokinetic Magnus, the earthen Selma and my personal favorite, Farrow a tough-talking fox lady with a cockney accent. They’re a weathered lot and they talk with the weariness of survivors charged with thankless duties.
Mutant Year Zero won’t win any BAFTAs for the dialogue, but the combination of wide-eyed wonder and pained determination in how these stalkers speak helps sell the notion that despite their bitter edge, there’s something to them that remains pure, child-like and innocent. All of this feeds back into the overall atmosphere of Mutant Year Zero which contrasts the irony of an ancient civilization once filled with glory, yet ill-deserved of the mourning and reverence given to it by the Stalkers.
“Your stalkers don’t say a lot, but what they have to say gives Mutant Year Zero more personality than you’ll find in other tactical games. They’re a weathered lot and talk with the weariness of survivors charged with thankless duties. “
Walk the walk, stalk the stalk
The world is broken up into large maps in which you search for scraps of gear and clues to your quest while keeping an eye out for threats. A push of a button lets you toggle a flashlight, letting you see further into mist and darkness, but it also draws more attention. Another key lets you get down on your haunches to sneak around and avoid notice, but it also reduces your sight radius. You can also enter into cover within tall rocks, abandoned cars, and the like, which ensures enemies won’t see you even when they’re mere inches away from you.
Planning is crucial to every combat scenario in Mutant Year Zero. Effectively speaking, there are two stages to every encounter – sneaking around in real-time to set up your stalkers, and opening up with a well-planned ambush. Sure you could just rush over to every hostile group you encounter, but you’ll end up being outnumbered and overwhelmed more often than not. Taking your time to scope out patrol patterns and isolating stray enemies is the more ideal strategy.
Split up your party and position your stalkers to maximize their skills. Secure an elevated position for your sniper, and make sure your mutant abilities are within effective range. Wringing every bit of tactical advantage out of your plans is made doubly important by the fact that there are no procedural / RNG elements to Mutant Year Zero. Whatever gear you find is all you’ll find, and enemies don’t respawn which means you can’t bank on grinding to gain a loot or experience level advantage against future encounters.
The most bang for your duck
“Where XCOM 2 rewards the use of every last bullet, and every drop of blood from your operatives, Mutant Year Zero demands you use stealth to secure tactical advantage before shootouts even begin.”
You’ll find yourself save-scumming a lot when things don’t go your way. Even the best laid plans can’t account for the surprise of random to hit rolls and a previously unknown enemy ability. The game gets easier over time, but even on the lowest difficulty you’ll find yourself reaching for a reload. Mutant Year Zero isn’t so much “hard” as it is punishing, making you regret every half-cocked combat opening.
Once you start a fight, you’d better know how you intend to win it. In the earlier maps, my strategy was to find stray enemies, open up with some kind of stun effect like Bormin’s bull rush or Farrow’s circuit breaker, and then unload with as many silent weapons as possible. Eventually there’d be a group that required a full blown shootout, but least I’d thinned the map of as many reinforcements as possible. This concern gradually diminished as I gained in gear and levels, but caution remained necessary throughout Mutant Year Zero.
Where Mutant Year Zero’s design falters is in the design of its RPG progression mechanics. When you gain levels, you earn mutation points that can be spent on some of the aforementioned abilities. While some of your spends can on stats like health and movement, those abilities supply much of the tactical leverage you’ll need from encounter to encounter. But with only three skill slots available for use, progression to unlock other abilities feels moot, especially since players are likely to settle on a favored configuration early on.
Despite all that, cashing in gear scraps, scouting each map and setting up your advantage remains immensely satisfying. The linear story and lack of random encounters means that barring any post-launch updates, its pleasures will always be finite. You can take a crack at a harder difficulty or turn on permadeath, but that’s about it as far as replay value goes. Mutant Year Zero is a clever little game filled with atmosphere that made me greedy for more of it.
Clever use of real-time pre-combat scouting rewards players with an eye for shrewd positioning and tactical savvy
The playable characters are likable, filled with personality and pretty cool, despite being a terse lot
Challenging turn-based combat encourages you to maximize every asset and resource
Immaculate and detailed presentation of a post-apocalyptic world
Lack of alternate game modes and random elements limits replay value
Campaign narrative doesn’t really go anywhere
What I played
Completed campaign, hitting an estimated 15 hours of play time.
Cleared all maps, and attained a party level of 65.
Secured 50% of total available achievements
Played on: PC
[This review is based on a review code provided by the publisher]