“Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden” may have caught North American audiences off guard when it was announced back in March, but for pen-and-paper role-playing gamers who grew up in Sweden, it was likely a different story.
“Mutant” is a pen-and-paper role-playing system and world — similar to “GURPS” or “Cyberpunk 2020” — that originally released in Sweden in 1984 and saw a series of expansions and updates through the ’80s and ’90s and all the way up through 2002. In “Mutant,” the human race is largely extinct; in its place, a ragged collection of animal-derived mutants, robots, and a few human remnants are rebuilding in ways big and small, exploring the ruined world and the mysteries of that now-extinct human society. This was elaborated on in several expansions, but “Mutant” and its myriad offshoots never saw translation into other languages — until, that is, 2014, when a new version of “Mutant” was published, set hundreds of years before the original game, and which received an english translation under the name “Mutant Year Zero.”
That might be a lot to take in, but the point is, “Mutant Year Zero” isn’t coming from nowhere — there’s a rich history and background to the setting, and as importantly, a generation of pen-and-paper fans vested in doing right by it. In speaking with members of developers The Bearded Ladies, there’s a sense of a cult following that they want to do right by in their interpretation of “Mutant,” which is surprisingly a first for the property. There’s never been a video game adaptation of the RPG, even as contemporaries like “Shadowrun” and “White Wolf’s various settings found life on PCs and consoles.
The avenue “Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden” is taking in that journey seems a bit serendipitous. At a time when “Wasteland” and the games it inspired are seeing a second life for exploratory, system-driven RPGs and developer Firaxis thrust “XCOM” back into the spotlight successfully several times over the last six years, “Road to Eden’s” interesting hybrid strategy/RPG approach seems well-timed.
I had the opportunity to sit down with the game for about 45 minutes at this year’s E3, but the duration of my time may be deceptive — I spent all of it attempting to play through the same scenario (unsuccessfully). The E3 demo begins with a bit of simple exploration, as I controlled my party of three, the human(?) Selma, the pig mutant Bormin, and the duck-headed Dux, exploring the snow-covered ground outside an ominous ruin from the old world. There’s some story-establishing dialogue here, and given that this demo was taken from a mid-game section of the story, there’s the suggestion of evolving alliances and dynamics between the characters.
There wasn’t much time to take it all in before I encountered opposition. The manner in which you’ll play “Road to Eden” is somewhat different than the game it will most frequently be compared to. While exploring, you have free control of one of the three characters, who will in turn be followed by the other two (unless you tell them to wait and wander off alone). In this phase, you can search containers and rubble, collect resources, and even position your troops for an impending ambush against your enemies. This part is important, and is cleverly implemented given the real time nature of the pre-combat phase — you can move a character to a specific spot and have them hide, which will then switch to the next character in line, allowing you to in turn ideally position them in another spot that will hopefully allow them the best combination of cover and lines of attack.
During exploration, enemies have a white circle around them signaling their awareness. If your squad is in position, you can hit a button to initiate an ambush on those enemies. Once an ambush begins, or enemies discover Selma and her friends, the turn-based combat phase begins. If you can ambush an enemy and kill them silently before their turn, then Road to Eden will revert to exploration, keeping your squad off additional enemies’ radar. But if you fail to kill an ambushed enemy in the first turn, or use unsilenced weapons, the enemy will alert other nearby forces, triggering an extended combat phase.
Killing enemies quickly is easier said than done, as many of them are remarkably resilient, and, once actively engaged, demonstrate a reasonable amount of tactical awareness. A single enemy outnumbered moved a minimal amount back and forth during its turns, preferring to spend its remaining activity point to take up an overwatch position rather than throw itself into impossible odds. Other enemies threw plenty of molotov cocktails and took up high ground for a tactical advantage.
It’s worth being clear: “Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden” will kill your teammates in combat quickly if you’re not careful, and while there’s no squadmate permadeath as there is in “XCOM,” a “dead” character is out of the fight until the remaining team members successfully finish the fight. Also, most of the weapons you have access to, at least as indicated in this demo, top out at four shots, with many needing a reload after two or even one, forcing you to dedicate a precious action to making sure you can actually fire.
The deck isn’t completely stacked against you, as explosives like grenades can destroy building facades and also collapse the floor beneath enemies on the high ground, leaving them vulnerable to attack. And there are a host of special grenades that can highlight enemies, leaving them more exposed, as well as smoke grenades to obscure your squad’s position on the battlefield.
The combination of a semi-unique post-post apocalypse, post-human setting with story and exploration with developed, sophisticated turn-based combat seems like it could be enough to set “Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden” apart. You should be able to learn more soon enough, as it’s slated for Xbox One, PS4 and PC later this year.