Roleplaying means different things to different people, combat, in particular, being the polarising point we see most often. Do you use miniatures or ‘theatre-of-the-mind’, which is to say imagine it all? If you like miniatures and grids and strategic placement, then the whole CRPG genre is ideal for you. Shadowrun Tactics, Neverwinter Nights, and Icewind Dale are all great games that take that style of tabletop roleplaying and run with it.
On the other side of the coin is the excellent Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlineswhich focuses more on the narrative aspect of its source material. Both options are equally valid and can make for excellent games as long as the developer takes into account the idiosyncrasies of the genre.
Mutant Year Zero: Road To Eden takes the equal parts grim and campy world of its tabletop source material and layers it atop an XCOM: Enemy Unknown style engine. In theory, great idea; in practice, not so much. The focus on stealth and picking enemies off loses us as soon as enemies start being able to take more damage than our rag-tag band can deal out. And if an enemy survives with even 1 health, you’re caught by every enemy on the map which, as a stealth game, you’re not equipped to deal with. Even when it’s possible to whittle down their numbers as they patrol, the XCOM style engine has
The game accounts for this by explaining in the tutorial that sometimes you will need to sneak past enemies as they are simply too strong for you. However, it explains this by putting a WoW style skull next to their name in the tutorial and doesn’t really do this again. About 3 hours in there is a fight that puts your team of 3 up against the aforementioned 26hp telepathic armoured ghoul, several 16hp hunters, some 8hp melee units, and a 16hp pyro. After around 2 dozen attempts, we had to give up and sneak past, firm in the knowledge that this was not a fight we could win at this stage in the game. Even after sneaking around, quick loading to get the stealth kills right, we couldn’t hope to take on the core group.
All of which is made even more frustrating by the fact that Mutant Year Zero provides a genuinely interesting narrative that makes us want to push through the annoyance. Bormin and Dux, while grating at first, grow on you like a parasitic fungus and hint at greater plots to be revealed later in the game. The characters, when coupled with the sense of freedom that the branching world map gives, makes exploration a hugely enjoyable part of the game. Getting to hear Bormin and Dux’s explanation for the various ruins and the item descriptions for the various artefacts is a great little reward that builds the tone and setting in a way we really enjoy.
Sadly, even with its attention to detail in the world and lore, levelling up is somewhat lacklustre. Mutant Year Zerotries to flavour its character progression as ‘mutations’ with some being genuinely interesting like Selma’s vines or Bormin’s stone skin, but most of them are just dime-a-dozen tactics fare. Most characters can ‘mutate’ the ability to run-n-gun: the same power as the assault class in XCOM. It’s functional but it doesn’t fit with the possibilities mutations suggests and ends up worse than if they’d just gone for XP and level. And later in, as more characters join the group, the tiny mutation pool becomes much more apparent as Farrow gains the same moth wings that made Dux stand out. It doesn’t outright ruin the experience but it does make characters feel interchangeable and flat which is a disservice to the otherwise excellent characterisation. Our solution would have been to stick true to the tabletop version where mutations are rolled for randomly on a fairly extensive list. Obviously, not the best choice for a linear game and we can understand the choice not to include it but there’s always hope for a new game+.
t is worth mentioning that around the halfway point, we did notice something different about the game and aren’t really sure if it was patched or if some option had changed behind the scenes. For the first 9 hours or so, we would be left to deal with our combat wounds until we found a medkit in the wastes or dropped 40-odd scrap (a not insignificant amount) at the store. But suddenly, health would always return to full at the end of combat, cooldowns would recharge fully, even death had changed as characters would just shake the decomposition off once the fight was over.
After this inexplicable change, the combat was more bearable but the RNG gods are still capricious and even the best-laid plans require multiple attempts. So personally, we find it hard to recommend Mutant Year Zero as the frustrating combat, occasional bugs, slow movement, and awkward camera make us quit to desktop more often than not. But at the same time, the story and the world keeps dragging us back for more. And though it has aged us considerably, if you’re a fan of the source material, then it’s worth it to stick it through just to experience the story. Especially if you’re like the rest of us and can’t get a group together anyway.