There’s a point early on in Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden when you realise this is something rather special. It’s when you’re methodically picking off a set of marauders patrolling a ruined settlement with a squad consisting of a wise-cracking anthropomorphic mallard (in a top hat, naturally) and his disgruntled warthog partner. You’ve just quietly insta-killed an enemy with Dux’s (the former) homemade crossbow – complete with a sardonic quip – before Bormin (the latter) feasts on the corpses of some fallen enemies, regenerating his health as he goes. A couple of blasts from his shotgun later and the rest are toast, ready for looting. It’s a small taste of what Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden has to offer, and its mixture of turn-based combat and stealth only gets better as time goes on.
Based on the Swedish role-playing game series of the same name, Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden follows an alternate history where humankind has been all but wiped out by the one-two punch of a viral outbreak known as The Red Plague and a nuclear war. What remains of humanity has been transformed into mutants, with a mysterious man known as the Elder forming a small community of survivors known as the Ark. It’s a narrative spin that’s not wholly original on paper, but it’s how indie developer The Bearded Ladies Consulting (great name, guys) approaches this well-worn path that gives it so much character.
When a set of developers from a big studio decide to go it alone and create their own turn-based tactics game, you’d probably think they were former Firaxis or Snapshot Games employees. However, the core of The Bearded Ladies Consulting is made of up of ex-Io Interactive talent, and you can really tell. Yes, Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is a top-down affair where your squad tactically fights enemies (with the threat of permadeath, should you want to turn it on) so those XCOM influences are clearly there for all to see, but Hitman’s use of stealth as a creative tool has shaped its design just as profoundly.
As a Stalker, you’ll spend much of your time exploring the irradiated ruins of the world (known as the Zone), collecting resources to help keep the Ark going for another day. However, the Elder soon tasks you with tracking down a missing member of your order, leading you further into the Zone than you’ve ever travelled before. Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is quick to point out that the Zone is a dangerous place – even forcing you to skirt around a level 50 enemy within your first few minutes or risk instant death – so using quieter and more careful movements are a must. At the touch of a button, you can toggle between walking normally with your flashlight out and moving slower and without the benefit of illumination. Having your torch means you can more effectively identify scrap heaps to harvest or items to collect, but it can make you a blazing beacon for nearby enemies.
Each enemy character has a white and red pool around them indicating how far their senses stretch. In that way, you can cross a glade or backyard right in front of an enemy, just as long as you don’t stray into their field of vision. That focus on stealth is at the heart of Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden's tactics, enabling you to pick off enemy squads in multiple ways, including taking out enemies on their own in order to thin out the numbers you’ll encounter later on. Using Bormin’s shotgun will bring nearby enemies to your location, and certain types will be able to call in reinforcements, so determining the best course of action before you initiate an ambush is often the best way to enjoy this tactical experience.
You’re playing as a pigman and a giant duck after all, so mutations play a big role in how you shape your playable characters. Presented as a skill tree that uses points unlocked every time you rank up, you can actively transform the role each character plays. Everything from your basic health to powerful new attributes, including the ability to grow a giant pair of Moth Wings (ideal for reaching high platforms for a vertical advantage) and a Spore Cloud that emits every time you’re hit. You start out with Bormin and Dux, but you can add one more to your team from a further three Stalkers you’ll meet while exploring the Zone. Most come with their own unique set of mutations and passive skills, such as Farrow the fox’s ability to leap large distances across an area and Magnus’ enemy mind control power. In a neat, time-saving touch, each new member is also automatically levelled to meet the current rank of your squad.
In terms of performance, Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden runs very well on Switch both in docked mode and in handheld. However, in order to achieve this performance and maintain mostly brief loading times, the developers have had to give the game a considerable visual downgrade. The sheer amount of blurring and pixelation employed can be a little jarring at first, even in handheld mode, although it helps that much of the Zone is dark and enveloped in shadows. It’s an issue that really stands out when you’re in combat and character models and assets are brought closer into frame. It’s the kind of concession we’ve come to expect from games of this ilk running on Switch, but it’s a sacrifice PC or console players will baulk at if they’re double-dipping on Nintendo's console.
Still, despite the downgrade in presentation, Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden on Switch still represents a solid package of content. Alongside the main campaign, you also have access to the Seed of Evil DLC expansion. Set to launch on all platforms on 30th July, this chunky expansion picks up where the main story ends and introduces new enemies, new locations, new mutations and a brand new playable character in the shape of Big Khan the Moose. Considering you’re going to get around 12 to 15 hours out of the base game just focusing on the main story alone – and you’ve got a good six or so hours from the DLC – new adopters can be sure they’re getting a considerable amount of game to sink their teeth into.
Update 01/08/19: A patch for Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden was rolled out on the day the embargo lifted, so much of our time was unwittingly spent with an earlier version of the game. The patch unlocks access to a number of features including adding the Seed of Evil expansion to the map and unlocking the Stalker Trials mode, which was introduced to the PC iteration back in February. This is a challenge mode that takes existing map locations and repopulates them with special combinations of robots, marauders and more. You can take in your existing squad – including all your limitations – but you’ll need to buy weapons and armour beforehand.
There are plenty of special objectives to complete, and your performance and times will be posted to a global leaderboard, should you wish to parade your stalking skills to the world. Alongside content unlocks, this patch also adds some improvements to Mutant’s overall visuals. As we noted above, the game experienced a considerable downgrade to its visuals in its review state, but we’re pleased to see some of this has been addressed. Character models and environment assets are now noticeably less pixelated, with few instances of rasterization and reduced blurring. It’s obviously still a less prettier version of the game, but the differences are much less pronounced.
Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is one of the best additions to the tactical RPG genre in years; a well-written and rewarding experience that combines the creative use of stealth found in the legacy of its ex-Hitman developers with a world that’s full of interesting characters and ideas. Almost every game in this genre lives in the shadow of XCOM, but Mutant offers enough new ideas to set itself apart. The visual downgrade on the Switch version can be a little hard on the eye, but considering how this sacrifice has preserved the quality of the game within, we’d call that a worthy trade-off.