A true sleeper hit.
The turn-based tactical strategy genre has seen somewhat of a resurgence in the years following the X-Com reboot. In a year of excellent strategy titles such as Into The Breach and BattleTech, can new franchise Mutant Year Zero carve out its own niche?
Set in a post-apocalyptic world where the bombs have dropped and a plague has killed off the majority of the population (stop me if you’ve heard this before), humans are almost extinct. Those that remain have been mutated by radiation, and live alongside anthropomorphised animals that were also changed by the wasteland. The last cradle of civilisation is located in “The Ark”, a hodgepodge structure built above a river and the horrors that lurk below.
Beginning Mutant Year Zero as a pair of Stalkers (enhanced mutants) on a scrap collecting mission for the Ark, the narrative setup seems so full of tropes that it can be difficult to engage with the core concept. After all, everything from Terminator to Fallout have prophesied the end of days, and also shown remarkably similar outcomes from it. Where Mutant Year Zero succeeds is in characterisation.
Your two initial Stalkers (more are gained later) are a straight-laced boar (Bormin) and a duck that can’t wait to return to the bar (Dux). While their initial banter is laced with exposition (as are some beautifully animated comic-book style cutscenes), incidental dialogue between the two builds impressive rapport even just throughout the first act. Be it Dux telling Bormin he owes him a drink for eliminating an enemy, or Bormin questioning Dux’s training when he misses a shot, there’s character here that isn’t often found in similar, more po-faced titles. The world is gloomy (as is to be expected), but there are also subtle elements of environmental storytelling that paint a picture of what the world used to be in a way not dissimilar to Fallout.
While the plot outline may not suggest anything new, Mutant Year Zero does make a considerable change to the traditional formula of the genre, namely the new stealth phase.
While exploration and combat occur in realtime, a simple button press when you encounter enemies will engage “sneaking”. This allows for your Stalkers to position themselves around enemy formations and eliminate stragglers with silenced weapons before making your presence felt. The choice to activate units each turn or opting to keep them hidden is an important consideration – do you risk all three of them being spotted or keep Dux and his silent crossbow in reserve to pick off enemies distracted by Bormin’s shotgun spree?
Another new addition is the idea of enemy levelling. As you progress in Mutant Year Zero, you’ll encounter all sorts of Ghouls (yes, named the same as Fallout’s unfortunate radioactive survivors), some of which cannot be fought at your current level. This then prioritises the stealthy approach, meaning you’ll need to tiptoe around them. Combat may be fun, but in some instances, simply skulking through the shadows is a more viable strategy. This can lead to some tense moments of dodging the field of vision of a particularly terrifying enemy.
These tactical decisions can also filter into the way in which you build characters. Spoilers aside, there are some impressive mutations for each character, as well as their weaponry. Mods can be added to inflict status effects such as burning, while artifacts found while exploring can present passive bonuses to all party members. Exploration is rewarded with crates of new weapon mods or items, although there were some instances where the UI displayed two button prompts over each other.
Mileage varies depending on the difficulty setting – while the game suggests “Very Hard” is the optimum way to play, “Hard” provided an ideal level of challenge. The option to add perma-death should keep those that enjoy gambling with the lives of their X-Com soldiers very happy indeed, while “Normal” is a great first step into the genre for new players – essentially healing your party after each encounter.
If you’re all burned out on X-Com or some of the other similar titles that have launched this year, Mutant Year Zero is an excellent palette cleanser. It’s stealth mechanics are smart and useful, it’s tactical combat is as rewarding as the player wants it to be, and it’s characters are memorable and well acted. While the plot is disappointingly derivative of other similarly set movies and games, it still shouldn’t prevent you from checking out a true sleeper hit.
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