Release Date: December 4, 2018Platform: PC (reviewed), Xbox One, PS4Developer: The Bearded Ladies ConsultingPublisher: FuncomGenre: Strategy
Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is one of those games you root for. Its smaller budget, strategy gameplay, and personality quirks make it something of an underdog in an industry often dominated by sequels, shooters, and throwbacks. It feels like we keep saying this every year, but complacency is often the mother of repetition.
It’s a shame, then, that for all the good things Mutant Year Zero does, it too is often brought down by a sense of complacency leading to repetition.
Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden takes place in the same world as the tabletop RPG series Mutant Year Zero, but there’s no need to research that series to understand what is happening in Road to Eden. That’s partially because it’s not tied at the hip of that series, but mostly due to the surprisingly exceptional storytelling throughout Road to Eden.
In fact, for a game that was seemingly made with a fairly modest budget, the quality of Road to Eden’s voice acting, presentation, and other cinematic elements are impressive. Every character is paired with a voice actor that ranges from very good to exceptional, while the occasional animated and in-game cinematics and non-interactive sequences spread throughout the experience demonstrate production values that really highlight what the right team can do even when it’s not working with all the money and tools in the world.
That all comes down to the way that developer The Bearded Ladies implemented so much personality into so many aspects of Road to Eden. Actually, the game’s best storytelling moments often come through things like item descriptions and character quips. I rarely ever bother to read every piece of lore in a game, but the many ways that Road to Eden builds its world through these little morsels of information is downright impressive. That’s especially true of the incredibly inaccurate descriptions of old-world artifacts that feel genuine and effortlessly funny.
True, some of the credit here goes to the Mutant Year Zero universe established by the tabletop series, but as someone who had no familiarity with that world prior to playing this game, I was shocked by how quickly I came to care about this world and the characters in it. Within minutes, the game does an incredible job of making you fall in love with its initial cast of characters as well as understand the stakes of this strange world where the desperation of survival is cut with the absurdity of believing that a duck and a pig are among the world’s saviors or that an iPod is perceived to be some kind of fruit preserver.
What keeps you glued to Road to Eden aren’t even the moment to moment story beats but rather the fun of existing in this universe. It’s great that’s the case because the rest of the game is decidedly hit and miss.
Road to Eden’s gameplay resembles X-Com in many ways. You take cover, fire shots that are tied to a hit percentage, cover your teammates, and ultimately try to clear an area of enemies before moving on. However, much like the brilliant Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, Road to Eden distinguishes itself from X-Com through a few key alterations to the formula. Namely, Road to Eden allows you to freely roam the game’s world outside of battles. This affects combat by allowing you to position your characters for the coming attack, and it affects the rest of the game by adding a loot and exploration element to the experience that we don’t typically see from these kinds of titles.
While the concept itself is welcome, Road to Eden’s exploration options lead to quite a few issues. Yes, it’s nice to be able to position your characters before a big battle and utilize the game’s stealth system to perfectly flank the enemy. However, the system is undone a bit by Road to Eden’s uneven difficulty and overreliance on stealth mechanics.
There’s nothing wrong with a difficult game (X-Com is incredibly challenging), but Road to Eden’s difficulty seems to be designed to be oppressive regardless of your circumstances. You can take the perfect position for every battle, but you’ll most often find that you’re still on the ropes after the initial shots are fired. That means that many fights feel somewhat similar from the start of the second round on. This is in stark comparison to a game like X-Com where you must constantly adjust your strategy in order to minimize risks.
The game’s difficulty turns its stealth features into a borderline necessity. The problem with this approach is that it limits Road to Eden’s “strategy” down to one realistic approach: take out as many enemies as you can before you are spotted. Even then, you’ve still got to hope that you score some critical shots on key foes before things get really bad.
The good news is that Road to Eden’s X-Com-style gameplay is otherwise excellent and complemented by the title’s RPG elements. Along with leveling up your characters, which includes the ability to grant them mutations that open up entirely new strategic possibilities, you also acquire loot between battles that can either be directly equipped or traded in for items and upgrades.
The mutations include a few gems (even if you don’t unlock the good stuff until later), but the real star here is the game’s economy. Resources are generally scarce enough to force you to make some real decisions regarding which team member gets a new upgrade and how many medkits you can really keep on you. Not only does this match the theme of the world, but it ensures that you can’t just buy your way out of trouble. Granted, the game’s difficulty undermines that feature somewhat, but it’s still a welcome inclusion.
Even then, though, various flaws hinder the overall experience. Collecting loot is an ultra-simplified process that just requires you to scour every corner of the game’s fairly limited areas, while the game’s system of loot progression (that is to say, items you randomly acquire) doesn’t feel dynamic enough to be a real hook. Similarly, your ability to really change a character’s abilities or role through mutations and upgrades isn’t really that drastic outside of some more significant upgrades found late in the game. It feels like a lot of potential role-playing elements were left on the table, which is odd considering that this series traces its roots to the role-playing genre.
This all leads to that feeling of repetition that I mentioned earlier. Most battles play out fairly similarly due to the importance of the stealth system, while the upgrades which do mix things up arrive near the end of a relatively short experience. That might be less of an issue if the combat scenarios were as varied as they are in X-Com or if Road to Eden featured the more active and dynamic combat style of Mario + Rabbids. Instead, you’re left relying on a select set of abilities to spice up battles that too often consist of the enemy trying to overwhelm your position as you scramble for safe harbors.
Through it all, though, Road to Eden remains an easy game to root for. Yes, it is burdened by a lack of ambition, and yes, it features some design shortcomings that hinder its potential, but we’re still left with a solid X-Com-style title that features some incredibly entertaining presentation and storytelling elements. Besides, when Road to Eden does finally reach second gear in its gameplay, it does begin to utilize the best elements of its world and story to help make each character feel as if they’re contributing something more than an extra gun.
When it all comes together, Road to Eden feels like one of the best strategy titles of the post-X-Com era as well as one of the better games of the year. Sadly, the game sometimes also feels as if it’s satisfied with being just another game in this growing strategy subgenre.