Mutant Year Zero snags the DNA of tactical turn-based combat from X-Com, splices it with the stealth and exploration of adventure titles, and injects it in the embryonic egg of a linear story-based package. The result? A mutated beast with a unique identity, and severe irritable bowel syndrome.
Like the Dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, it’s a neat idea in theory, but maybe not so much in practice, at least without proper design and precautions anyway. So, did the Bearded Ladies spare no expense while concocting this hybrid?
You play as a squad of mutants called stalkers, an elite unit of scouts and soldiers from the Ark, the last bastion of humanity in a world that already ended. Stalkers venture out into the “zone” searching for scrap and other materials the Ark needs to stay running. The game takes an original cliche and flips it on its head because your stalkers are mutants. And not the normal kind (mostly) I mean bipedal, walking, talking anthropomorphic animal mutants.
Road To Eden
When you first see the starting two characters of the game. They look almost comical and it could give you a very wrong impression of the game’s tone. The setting itself is not light-hearted or humorous, it’s dark, serious and depressing. A bit of dialogue is tongue in cheek, with mutants having the completely wrong impression of what old objects were used for, such as, mistaking an old “boombox” for a bomb. But aside from that, the story is pretty gritty.
The writing and voice acting are decent, if a bit sparse. Plot wise there really isn’t much dialogue or character growth but the surrounding lore is pretty intriguing and you have a lot of notes to find and read. I have no experience with the tabletop RPG that the game is based on. But I did find the setting interesting enough that I want to look into it. The game is also somewhat short, but it can feel longer depending on how often you fail encounters. However, unless you really enjoy the game, there is no real replay value in it once you complete the main story.
Outside of combat, you control your squad in real time when moving them around the environment. Enemies have a circle around them as an indicator of where they will spot you. The party can run around with a flashlight that reveals more of the area around yourself and lets you move quicker, but it causes the circles to expand. You will be doing a lot of slower paced sneaking around enemies while you plan your attack as well as scouring every single inch of land attempting to collect all the scrap, gun parts and artifacts you can find. You are going to need them.
Scrap can be used to buy items from a store in the Ark. Gun parts let you upgrade various firearms and artifacts unlock squad wide skills from a special tree. You will also find new weapons and gun attachments out in the field. Exploration is the name of the game, because without it. You’re doomed. When combat happens you transition seamlessly into a turn-based mode that feels very much like an X-COM game. Cover is super important and each stalker gets two actions per round. You can shoot, use abilities, dig in to lessen your chance of being shot or go into over watch and shoot at moving enemies on their turn.
A variety of enemies are good and bad against certain tactics and have powers of their own. Whether or not you hit is percentage based and luck does factor into your success. This isn’t a bad thing on its own, it works for X-COM after all. But Mutant Year Zero isn’t X-COM.
In Mutant Year Zero, you only ever get five team members. This would not be a bad thing on its own if they were completely unique, but the five have a lot of ability crossover between them. Each one does have a couple unique powers too. You can only control three at a time and you are always outnumbered and outgunned. And I very seriously mean that. Stealth is not really optional.
You have to pick off as many stragglers as possible before engaging the main force or you aren’t winning. If you can find an enemy far enough away from its allies, you can ambush them and use silent weapons to do the job. If you kill them before they get a turn, you exit combat and the rest of the force is none the wiser.
The problem arises in the mid-game where lone stragglers take a single shot from each of your units to be killed. The chance to hit is percentage based, for example if each of your soldiers have a 75% chance to hit, and even one of them misses, it’s time to reload save. You can’t win by fighting the entire force at once, even if you’re some kind of video game Machiavelli.
Late game it gets even worse as enemies take more than three shots and you are forced to find a way to abuse the game mechanics to win. Either by building up as much critical hit chance as possible or using abilities that stun an enemy so you can get the extra shots in.
The RNG of the game is on a fixed seed. If you miss a shot, lose and have to reload a save, that same shot will always miss unless you change the circumstances. Mutant is not a sandbox mission-based game like X-COM where you have a variety of options or in the worst-case scenario, can start over a highly replayable game.
Mutant Year Zero is a linear story game, starting all the way over because you’re stuck is not really an option. On the higher difficulties, you feel this pain all the more intensely. Stealth killing via RNG doesn’t even sound good on paper, and I really don’t think it’s working in practice either.
The game does have difficulty settings which is great. If you have read my reviews before you know how important that is to me. However, this time my critiques of the system are exacerbated by them. On hard, your stalkers only heal half their health after combat and their combat abilities don’t refresh.
Instead, each ability requires a certain number of kills to use again, remember how I said later enemies require abilities that stun them in order to stealth kill them? Yeah, you’re going to need to break out the pen and paper, draw some diagrams and save in multiple slots. A mistake is devastating.
I can’t stress this point enough, Mutant Year Zero is linear. There are no random encounters. Scrap, gun parts, and enemies are all finite. There is no grinding available to get more XP, currency to spend, or to refresh your skill cooldowns.
So, the base game is challenging and higher difficulties are very challenging. But it doesn’t feel like a fair or thought-out challenge as you’re forced to abuse game mechanics and save scum as much as possible. Currency is limited so you can’t afford to burn away too many Medi kits and if you mistime an ability and can’t kill enough enemies to refresh it, your toast.
This makes each encounter feel like a puzzle rather than a battle. You have a finite number of “correct” moves you can make, and hope you didn’t make a wrong one twenty minutes back. Some people might enjoy this, I did at times. But it certainly wasn’t what I was expecting.
There were a few battles that felt like the tactical fights I was looking for, whenever it happened, the game felt genuinely great and I’d love to see more of that style from Mutant. When you strip away the need for stealth and the linearity shortcomings the combat feels good and is enjoyable. It’s similar to X-COM but different enough to have its own identity. And while I enjoy linear games, it just tarnishes Mutant at every turn and hampers many of its systems that are otherwise awesome.
There are a good variety of guns and armor in the game and they are all upgradable and customizable. Furthermore, none of your units are locked into a weapon type. They can each carry two guns and you can outfit them with whatever armor and weapons you want. Something I was pleasantly surprised with, was that the armor and hats weren’t just statistical changes.
They visually show up on your units and I really appreciate that detail. Again, the right and wrong nature of the game shows through here as well. You upgrade your guns with gun parts, but remember that they too are finite. You can upgrade any of them you choose. But really, the correct choice is to level up all of your silent weapons first or you are going to struggle badly.
You also collect artifacts of the old world which you can turn in back at the Ark. These unlock special skills that affect your entire team and those skills are incredibly important. They cause your grenades to deal more damage or your Medi kits to heal more HP. Artifacts like everything else are finite, and you have to find them out in the world.
I had one bad situation where I got into a battle near an artifact before I collected it. It was on the second story of a building and an explosion took the floor out (environments are very destructible). The artifact was lost forever since I didn’t notice until after the battle and I didn’t have a prior save. I tried everything I could to make it reappear. Leaving the zone made the floor respawn, but no artifact. So not only was I slightly gimped in that regard, that artifact was lost to me unless I started all the way over.
You gain XP and can level up each of your stalkers via a skill tree. The skills feel very much like a tabletop RPG rather than the soldier’s abilities in X-COM and they are integral to victory. I honestly feel there are right and wrong answers here too. For example, Bormin has a charge ability that knocks down foes and stuns them. I could not imagine completing the game without that ability.
I am at home and happiest in a challenge, it is my domain, and the top bunk is mine so buzz off. I’ve deducted a point from some game reviews for not including difficulty settings that let me raise the challenge.
But I’ll be honest, I don’t think I could ever beat this game on very hard. In fact, I think I’m going to get some enjoyment out of watching playthroughs of other people doing exactly that. Because it’s going to be some champion level strategy, tactics and a titanic level of cheese to pull off. Each encounter is a riddle, and I’m awful at riddles.
As I said before, each of your five stalkers has a bit crossover in their abilities. I also found it disappointing that two of the five “mutants” more or less looked human. I would have liked to see more fantastical mutants in the game like Dux the duck and Bormin the boar. The enemies are also mostly humanlike, with the occasional robot. I feel like that is squandering the potential of the setting. But it could also be true to its source material, the tabletop game. (I’m still looking into that.)
I reviewed Mutant Year Zero on the base Xbox One. I did have frequent framerate drops and stuttering. It crashed to the dashboard no less than 8 times, mostly in the loading screen between zones (which are somewhat lengthy).
The graphics and sound are both good but are nothing noteworthy. The environments feel bland, but they aren’t ugly. The story is simplistic but the lore is interesting. The combat is fun at times, but hampered by the game’s linear nature and finite resources. Exploring and finding new loot is fun but I do not think stealth killing enemies combined with RNG works well at all.
Mutant Year Zero is not a bad game per se and I think there are a lot of people that will enjoy it far more than I did. So, if you think you would enjoy the puzzle-like nature of the combat encounters don’t write off the game on my account. But the technical issues were frustrating, especially the amount of crashing that occurred and I feel much of
If you like tactics games, check out my review of Attack Of The Earthlings!
- Interesting lore and setting
- Combat feels good at times and has its own identity
- Armor is also a cosmetic addition to statistical enhancements.
- Lots of skills, weapons and artifact skills
- RNG and stealth are a bad mix
- Linear nature and finite resources hamper the game’s systems
- The small number of units share too many abilities
- To many humans, not enough Mutant
- Combat feels like puzzle solving instead of tactical engagements
- Frequent crashing, stutters and long load times.