Duck and cover — Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden preview

Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden has been on our radar for a while now, thanks to its interesting blend of stealth exploration and tactical combat. Plus, how often do you get to see a duck sprout giant leathery wings and wield a sniper rifle? The gameplay footage we’ve seen to this point piqued our interest, but also left us wondering how its genre mash-up would hold up once we got our hands on it. Well, we recently got the chance to find out for ourselves with a roughly three-hour gameplay demo that put a lot of our concerns to rest.

In Mutant Year Zero, you command a small squad of mutants, at first comprising just two members: Bormin the pig and Dux the duck. What they lack in original names, they certainly make up for in personality. See, the nuclear wasteland they inhabit has imbued these mutants with the ability to walk, talk, and wisecrack in a way that’s distinctly reminiscent of sardonic ‘90s comic book banter. I found both of them to be immediately likeable, thanks to both their snappy writing and excellent voice acting.

The demo gives you just a few minutes to get acquainted with your new barnyard pals before shoving you into your first combat encounter. Or rather, letting you sneak up on your first combat encounter. What sets Mutant Year Zero apart from other tactical combat games (aside from the whole anthropomorphic pig thing) is how it seamlessly melds its combat with its world. Rather than dropping you into hostile territory to immediately engage your enemies, Mutant Year Zero lets you control the entire approach. At the demo’s start, you take command of Bormin and Dux as they make their way through an extremely spooky forest to get back to their home in a place called the Ark. You’re always equipped with a flashlight as you explore, and if you turn it on, you’ll have an easier time finding hidden scrap and weapon parts, as well as any enemies in the area. The downside is that they’ll also spot you much more easily. When you suspect enemies are near, or hear them talking loudly to themselves, as they’re wont to do, you can turn off your flashlight to sneak closer.

Once you’ve spotted an enemy, you can always just rush them and initiate combat, but the smarter, more interesting play is to set up an ambush. You can control each character in your squad separately, ordering them to hide in different places around the map before you start combat. Once you initiate combat, you can choose to keep any character hidden as long as you want and spring them on their enemies at the most opportune time. You can even use silent weapons to pick off your enemies one by one, if you can get the drop on them out of sight of them compatriots and take them out within one turn. Later in the demo, using these tactics wisely can turn difficult combat encounters from bloodbaths into — well, still bloodbaths, but ones with less of your blood involved. The demo’s last fight would be nigh impossible to win through brute force, but the sprawling battlefield it takes place in lets you completely turn the tables through careful planning.

There’s some light tutorialization up front to explain all this, but it’s easiest to figure out by just doing it, as the in-game tutorials leave a lot to conjecture. I ran into some trouble early on when I tried to sneak up on an enemy for a stealth kill and instead alerted him and all of his buddies to my presence, and later I didn’t realize that you had to manually select your height to use Dux’s flying ability and a later character’s ability to leap to high ground. The only control issue I had that couldn’t be chalked up to my own ignorance was the use of the right click in combat. If you’re lining up a shot or doing most other actions, you can right click to go back one step in a menu, but if you’re not in a menu that allows this, right clicking will move your character to wherever you mouse is pointing on the battlefield. In our preview video at the top of this post, you can see me send characters rushing headfirst into enemy positions over and over because of this quirk. It can also be tough to tell when you’re safe from enemy fire, as I ran into several instances during the demo where enemies seemed to fire at impossible angles to hit my characters, but it’s hard to say how much of this is my own lack of experience with the game’s combat and how much it’s a legitimate issue with the game itself.

When combat is underway, it unfolds mostly like a traditional tactical combat game. You can switch between two weapons and several projectiles, take cover behind rusted out cars and other environmental cover, and outflank your enemies to get a clear shot while keeping your back covered. All of this is complicated a bit by the addition of mutations. As you level up, you can add mutations to each of your characters that alter combat in ways both small and large. A lot of the mutations lean toward small, incremental improvements, but occasionally you’ll get major upgrades like a charge attack, an ability that roots enemies in place, or Dux’s aforementioned wings. These big boosts overshadow the small stat bumps so much that it makes the latter a bit of a disappointment.

After you fight your way back to the Ark, which serves as a hub/safehouse, you can also upgrade your weapons or buy entirely new gear. The Ark was a little limited in the demo, as your interactions are limited to weapon enhancements and sifting through a small stock at the shop. I’m hoping for more interaction with NPCs at the Ark to help flesh out the world a bit, but it doesn’t seem like there’s too much of that in store, outside of conversations with the Elder, the Ark’s ruler who totally has your best interests in mind and is definitely not using you to enact any shady plans of his own.

The game’s tone rides a perilously thin line between gritty and grimdark, but at least in the demo, manages never to slip too far into self-seriousness. It’s laden with macabre jokes, often found in letters that dot the blasted landscape and the attempts of the mutants to figure out pre-war technology (“That’s a bomb, alright? They used to call it a boombox. Touch that red button and it goes boom.”). That’s not to say that Mutant Year Zero is always a barrel of laughs, though. It’s a post-apocalyptic game, after all, and it has no problem explicitly blaming human-caused climate change and nuclear war for that apocalypse. I was glad to see the game establish early that it wasn’t going to be pulling any punches, and I hope it keeps tackling these subjects head-on as it progresses.

Aside from a few minor quibbles with controls and enemy sightlines, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden, even replaying the demo a second time through. Its seamless melding of stealth and tactical action makes the world feel much more coherent than it does in most tactical games, and gives players who find the XCOMs of the world a little too frustrating a way to tackle the genre on their own terms. I’m eager to see what options this unique approach to tactical combat opens up and to guide my adorable animal friends on their murderous road trip through the ruins.

A committed indoor kid, Bryan moved from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles for a prettier landscape to ignore. They can be lured outside with promises of taco trucks and film festivals, and enjoy trawling through used book stores for works on the occult. Bryan has been gaming since the SNES era and is a sucker for good pixel art.

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