Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is pretty long name for a game with a straightforward pitch: What if XCOM but with animorphs?
While it's based off of a pen and paper role-playing game popular in Sweden during the '80s, developer The Bearded Ladies have made it their own by injecting the inspiration's DNA into a turn-based tactical game. After close to an hour with Mutant Year Zero, I came away excited to play more, and not just because one of the characters I got to control was a duck in a top hat sporting a crossbow.
My demo consisted of guiding a party of three through a wintery wasteland patrolled by mutant creatures approximating zombies. Mutant Year Zero shifts seamlessly between free-flowing real-time exploration and grid-based combat once you're spotted by enemies. In this way the game is able to combine elements of different games to create something that feels natural overall.
While I was getting the lay of the land and searching for items or extra resources, Mutant Year Zero played like Diablo might. When I was in combat, I could plan out my squad's actions like XCOM, spending limited action points to tell them where to move and who to shoot.
Once combat was done, things immediately shifted back to exploration mode, like coming out of a random encounter in a turn-based JRPG, and I could go about my business stealthily trying to position myself for the next fight. The result is an added layer of player choice that helps Mutant Year Zero still feel somewhat like the role-playing game it borrows its name from.
"We didn't really want to turn this into an RPG per se, because we thought that if that's what we want to do then playing a tabletop is best," Haraldur Thormundsson, the head of Bearded Ladies, told Kotaku in an interview.
"We're doing an RPG but within the framework of the video game format because you have free exploration where you're building the story, you have the stealth element where you're setting up your tactics, and as soon as you roll the dice you go into turn-based combat and you either come out the other side or you have to go back to planning just as they did in the '80s."
Pen and paper RPGs have made a big comeback in recent years, helped along in part by the popularity of Dungeons & Dragons podcasts and Twitch streams, as well as the larger renaissance in tabletop games more generally.
Mutant, originally published in Sweden in 1984, was one beneficiary of this trend, getting its first English translated release in late 2014 as Mutant Year Zero. It takes place after an apocalypse which has led to the downfall of human civilisation and the rise of mutated creatures, some of which look like people while others resemble animals resembling people, sort of like The Wind and the Willows meets Mad Max.
Given humanity's collective love of YouTube videos starring wildlife and the general sense that the world could fall apart at any moment, the appeal of the video game's source material isn't unusual, despite English-speaking audiences likely being unfamiliar with it.
"I love the savage world in which the [pen and paper] game is based in. There is something tragically beautiful about a world reclaimed by nature," said the game's producer, Mark Parker. "In addition, the backstory of Mutant Year Zero is a step above the standard post-apoc fare and makes the player want to discover more about what really happened to humanity and where the Mutants came from."
Mutant Year Zero's lore meant I spent my time controlling a squad consisting of a humanoid mutant, a blunderbuss wielding pig, and the version of Daffy Duck you might get if he had also been raised by War Boys. Each character has a unique skill tree with a lot of overlapping upgrades but also some unique ones that branch, meaning you'll have some freedom to customise their development.
While only three can be controlled at the time, your roster in the game will actually grow much larger as you meet new characters, all of whom can be swapped out on the fly when not in combat and who level up evenly whether they're getting used or not.
After three separate attempts to beat the demo I can safely say that considering every possible character and their unique skill sets and weapons will be a top priority. Making sure your characters take cover and don't bite off more than they can chew isn't enough in Mutant Year Zero. Finding ways to exploit the environment and synergise character strengths is the only way to have a chance of surviving.
For instance, a well-placed grenade can blow up structural supports and send enemies plummeting to the ground, delivering fall and burn damage in addition to the initial explosion. Silent weapons can be used to take out small groups of enemies without alerting the larger horde nearby. Mutations, such as the giant pig's ability to move twice and then still fire his weapon, offer a small but necessary edge.
Even after the developers showed me all of this, though, my crew still got torn to shreds. Still, I was curious to keep trying. Given that scenarios such as these double as Hitman-esque stealth tests, I always felt that given a chance to do things slightly different, I might be able to improve my odds the next time simply by changing how I approached the fight.
The game is headed to PC and console later this year. While it looked easier to play using a keyboard and mouse, I played with a controller, because such is my heritage, and didn't feel at all at a disadvantage, especially during the free-flowing exploration segments.
You can control characters individually and tell them to hide at specific spots in order to prepare an ambush, something that felt much more intuitive with the analogue stick and trigger buttons of an Xbox controller.
Whether Mutant Year Zero is able to deliver an equally compelling drama around mutants and exploring the ruins of civilisation remains to be seen. "One of the big challenges is scope," Parker said. "Pen and paper games are by their very nature governed by a core set of rules and then the players imagination sets the limit."
The team realised early on that this wouldn't be feasible, and decided to try to scale the adventures of the pen and paper RPG down into a series of tactical adventures. "We took adventuring and storytelling elements (plus the incredible universe) from the books and merged them with the game."
So far Bearded Ladies hasn't shown much of the narrative side of that fusion, but if it's handled with the same soundness as that tactical side, Mutant Year Zero could be one of the most interesting genre mashups.