Personality goes a long way with games. Just an ounce of it can elevate a game from the crowd. And Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden has heaps of it.
This post-apocalyptic adventure is X-Com with a dash of stealth and exploration. It's based on a decades old tabletop game simply called Mutant which was itself rebooted into Mutant Year Zero a few years ago. It's very popular in Sweden, where the game's creators Bearded Ladies, hail from. While it provided the world Road to Eden would live in, this adaptation leans on one particularly potent characteristic of the tabletop game. One thing that just stands out immediately. The X-Com trappings are as solid a foundation as you can get but it's the world and the characters that held my attention. Because there's no getting round it, the first thing you're going to notice, the first thing everybody is gonna want to talk about with this game is the badass duck man.
These mutants are rightfully the star of the show but as eye catching as they are they're more than just a pretty(?) face for Mutant Year Zero, they're the beating heart of the whole game and the reason I stuck with it for a dozen hours to the credits. Called Stalkers, they're tasked with venturing out into the zone and scavenging supplies to keep humanity's last refuge going. A thankless task if the grumpy residents of the "Ark" are anything to go by.
Their appearance is incredibly striking though. This strange mixture of anthromporphic animals and post-apocalyptic survival gear sounds like a bad idea on paper but the execution absolutely sells it. These animals feel as battered and tactile as their weathered coats. A bit of duct tape over a scarred beak or an eye patch sewn in over a missing eye. Making the absurd convincing isn't easy but Mutant Year Zero walks the fine line extremely well. Even once you start dressing your team up in silly hats. It's just a bit of a shame none of the women mutants get to be as monstrous as the half-boar, half-man Borhmin.
You've got Dux, the game's terribly-named poster-child, Borhmin as mentioned but my personal favourite is the mysterious Farrow. She's one foxy lady. No, she's literally a fox. Also cockney for some reason but her confrontational attitude has a special place in the heart of this angry Scot. There's some more human-like mutants such as Selma, who's got horns growing out of her face and a connection to nature for reasons I've yet to fathom. Wrapping up enemies in vines is too useful to complain about, however. They only get stranger though as you evolve them with each level up, unlocking insect wings to let them snipe from elevation or rock skin to soak up bullets.
Getting them to look right is only the half of it. They have to seem like real people, too in the way they speak. This game won't win any awards for the dialogue; it's not a strong part of the game but it knows what it needs to do well enough. They don't say much but when they do, it's full of charm. Raised long after the events that ended civilisation, they're clueless as to the purpose of many items and artifacts they find, mistaking boom boxes for bombs and iPods for fruit testers. It's mined for humour, sure but their ignorance is ultimately endearing, a sense that for all the pain and struggle they're up against, there's still something child-like about these mutants. I want to protect these well meaning little guys, they're just too pure for this world.
And what a world it is. Overgrown, dark even during the day, riddled with the remains of humanity. That's literal remains by the way - there are corpses everywhere and hints of a nightmarish plague. You get a variety of locations to go through but from snow to underground tunnels, the oppressive air never leaves. You're not welcome here. Mutant Year Zero's Zone takes heavy influences from Stalker, the film but especially the games, right down to hordes of rabid dogs. But it's a little goofier, with its idiotic ghouls and killer robots. The new and advanced, high-tech machines emerging throughout the Zone represent a different threat - and not just because they're several times tougher than even the baddest ghouls. These shiny bots are a cleansing fire determined to remove the imperfect from the world, especially those like our heroes. It's a threat that feels personal in its hostility to our heroes' existence, who are being singled out for being different. I think anyone who's ever felt like an outsider for simply being themselves will identify strongly. God damn if it didn't make me want to see those mutants succeed even more.
The danger they face is potent and the game's stealth slant on the X-Com formula feeds back into its character. You're not soldiers, great warriors who can go toe-to-toe with your enemies. Each enemy is as capable as your team, has as much if not more health and has plenty of special abilities to match your own. Taking down one enemy feels like a feat. A dozen? Almost impossible. You're underdogs, outmatched and outnumbered in every possible way. No victory in this game comes easy, whether that's picking foes off one by one by catching them alone, or setting up an ambush ahead of a fight. You have to turn the odds in your favour as best you can because when it comes to a fight, Mutant Year Zero is every bit as ruthless as X-Com, but there isn't any replacements standing in-line behind your small squad of mutants. It makes for smart, engaging strategy, but it also lends the characters' struggle real weight and by extension, gives them humanity. Monstrous as they may appear, these mutants are as human as they come.
As you progress through the game their pain runs deeper than each battle. Their troubled pasts unfold slowly, revealing a group of broken people, left to fend for themselves in a world that does not give two craps about them. Yet against all hope, they manage to find the strength to do the right thing. There's a line early in the game, hammy as it is (not just because it's delivered by a pig!) that sums up the game's core emotion. "Stalkers don't get happy endings... we get each other." That's the essence of these characters. They recognise their own suffering in those around them and choose to help, where their foes choose to manipulate, to abuse and destroy. Mutant Year Zero isn't the year's best story, but it might just have some of its most loveable characters.
It's been a surprisingly busy time at the end of 2018, with a lot of surprise games coming out at the last minute. There's a lot to choose from! Mutant Year Zero though, is absolutely worth your time, for fans of strategy and X-Com but especially for those interested in character. These brave bunch of mutants are some of the finest company you can find yourself in this year.