Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is a bit of an odd duck. It also stars an odd duck—at least partially. See, the “mutant” part of this XCOM-like tactics game refers to its playable characters. One of whom is a walking, talking duck man. And, whoa nelly, does the game ever remind you of this fact.
Our feathered friend, understandably named Dux, isn’t alone. The two-hour preview build I played included a pig man and a woman who is also apparently a mutant (she has a horn, I guess). The trio is part of a group called the Stalkers. They explore the uninhabitable wasteland of a post-apocalyptic world, called The Zone, for valuable scrap and supplies.
Sound familiar? It will if you played the cult smash Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl. Mutant Year Zero takes some clear stylistic cues from that game (or at least its source material, the Russian novel Roadside Picnic). Although this game is a lot less grim than either.
Sure, it’s a post-apocalypse, but it’s also full of duck puns. And I mean full of duck puns. Remember how I said this was a two-hour preview? I hit at least three or four double duck entendres in that short time. Did you also know “duck” rhymes with “fuck”? Because I do; three times over.
When the crew isn’t cracking (debatably) wise, it’s cracking skulls. And the combat works a lot better than the humor.
XCOM is another clear and present influence—right down to the interface. Your squad and nearby enemies take turns moving, firing, taking cover, and entering “overwatch.” That last action will be familiar to most tactics game players. It basically sacrifices a direct attack for the chance to crack one off when an enemy moves into the waiting soldier’s range. It’s especially useful when enemies are entrenched in cover, because overwatch doesn’t fire until a target is out in the open.
Overwatch is doubly useful in Mutant Year Zero. That’s because the game sports two major differences over XCOM. First is that shot percentages—the chance to actually hit a target at range—are much less granular. Everything is in zero, 25, 50, 75, or 100 percent chance increments. Light cover provides 25 and extra percent protection. Full cover provides a full 50. So every action either has a massive impact on your chances, or none at all.
The second difference is stealth. Mutant Year Zero actually gives you real-time control of the party between battles. You can explore each map, hunt for loot, or ambush enemies. Ambushes make a big difference, because you can isolate small groups of ghouls and other monsters. Pick them off, and your next fight is much easier. Alert too many, and you can easily get swarmed. Putting allies into overwatch keeps them hidden while enemies charge your beefier buddies.
Stealth seems like it could be the game’s most interesting wrinkle. Otherwise, Mutant Year Zero feels pretty simple. It’s got some awfully generous movement range and a very simple upgrade system, on top of its streamlined shot percentages. I’d say it sits somewhere between XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle (a.k.a. “XCOM Junior). Although a few design choices chafe against that comparison.
Health, for instance, doesn’t restore automatically—not even after battle. Instead you have to use limited health packs. You can find some in the world, but I burned through them much faster than I could loot them. That meant buying more from the game’s headquarters location. And they get expensive. So much so that I couldn’t afford new grenades (which are also consumable) or upgrades instead.
That sort of punishing attrition feels at odds with the game’s gentler mechanics. If anything, it’s more in line with the much grimmer Stalker games Mutant Year Zero takes its nomenclature from.
There is one loophole, though. Squaddies don’t die when they hit zero health. They only go down for several turns, during which you can revive them with a health kit. “Deceased” Stalkers even stand up again if you manage to beat the battle without them. There’s really no long-term consequence—besides a bit of damage you can heal to full with health kits anyway.
It’s a strange system. Technically, you can let extremely weak teammates die near the end of a battle to heal them about halfway. It’ll save you money, which seems harder to come by than the battles are to finish.
Mutations might alleviate that strange push-and-pull. Each character has a unique, but small, skill tree that unlocks new abilities. These are as basic as extra HP and as complex as growing wings mid-battle. Although the skills are functionally very familiar.
Literally growing wings to get a height advantage is an striking development. But, at least in this build, few skills seem that flashy. “Run & Gun,” which lets a unit act after sprinting, is another XCOM favorite. It even has the same name. It’s useful, but hardly plays with the promise of full-body genetic alteration. Hopefully the final game is a bit more adventurous.
That’s what I’d like to see more out of Mutant Year Zero: weirdness. Its sense of humor is strained and its gameplay is simple. Although isolating enemies through stealth adds an original strategic layer. Getting especially goofy with its premise could be just the niche the game needs to find.
Otherwise, it seems like a solid entry point for tactics game newcomers. I just see the spark of something more. I’m genuinely curious if the final version of Mutant Year Zero can stoke that potential into something bigger.