Turn-based strategy games have enjoyed a healthy amount of experimentation the past few years, including the enemy-stomping zaniness of Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle and the stealthy espionage angle of The Phantom Doctrine. With a focus on world-building and exploration, Mutant Year Zero also carves out its own niche in the genre, but a limited scope and bafflingly abrupt ending mar the experience.
Unlike most turn-based strategy games that jump between a menu-driven home base and an endless series of discrete maps for skirmishes, Mutant Year Zero’s unique post-apocalyptic world is comprised of hand-designed maps that are all linked together via branching exits. Players explore these zones with a band of mutated misfits via real-time movement, and are free to sneak by enemies they encounter in the environment or ambush them. Engaging the enemy initiates turn-based combat that will be instantly familiar to XCOM fans, encouraging players to use cover, high ground, and character abilities to their advantage.
The most unique and important aspect of Mutant Year Zero’s combat lies in when and how you choose to engage your foes. Maneuvering your squad members into position and stealthily picking off single enemies when they wander away from the pack is vital for evening out the odds, and figuring out an order to systematically dispatch a collection of enemies in smaller groups can be supremely rewarding. Mutant Year Zero’s stealth combat steals the show, and while large-scale battles are fun in their own right, nothing beats the thrill of chaining together a series of stuns and silent attacks to take down a hulking brute or giant mech without alerting their comrades.
The exploratory aspect of Mutant Year Zero doesn’t fare as well. While the zones are visually striking and offer a fair amount of world-building, the slow rate of movement and lack of a minimap make it a pain to thoroughly explore them – but you basically need to do it anyway. Resources are finite in Mutant Year Zero, including the valuable items you find, the scrap and weapon parts you can use to buy and upgrade your gear, and the enemies you encounter. These limitations extend to your party as well – you only recruit a handful of characters over the course of the game, and each one only has a few useful abilities. You also maintain and swap between an extremely small selection of weapons, which can get tedious when you want to change up your approach to multiple consecutive fights.
Exploration issues aside, the developer’s careful orchestration of resources and enemy encounters works reasonably well, but it doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room. The condensed progression curve means your party members level up after almost every battle, which feels great. On the other hand, you can’t skip many encounters before you’re hopelessly under-leveled. If you are struggling, your only option is to travel back to earlier zones and search for enemies you passed over the first time around – a necessary evil as some foes will simply be too strong when you first encounter them. Sometimes just finding a few pockets of enemies again can be a lengthy challenge in and of itself.
Despite these hiccups, I’m happy with the gameplay Mutant Year Zero offers during its 10-15 hour running time. However, I can’t offer the same praise for the narrative, which takes the biggest hit from the game’s limited scope. Mutant Year Zero’s post-apocalyptic world has been caused by a trifecta of calamities; nuclear warfare, global warming, and a deadly plague all brought humanity (and co-existing mutants) to the brink of extinction, leaving only a handful of survivors living in a suspended city called the Ark. When the Ark’s main mechanic goes missing, you search for answers by leading an expedition into the wastes with a mix of super-powered humans and anthropomorphic animals known as stalkers.
The environments and characters do a good job building up an intriguing world and lore, but the story feels like it’s missing a third act. After you resolve the initial search, your focus shifts to investigating the titular Eden, laying out a number of larger and satisfying fights along the way. However, the ensuing discovery feels more a like a mid-game plot twist than an ending. As soon as the credits rolled, I went online to see if Mutant Year Zero was intended to be an episodic game. It’s not, and I’m still a bit baffled. Not even in Mutant Year Zero’s strange anthropomorphic world would this qualify as a satisfying conclusion.
From a gameplay perspective, Mutant Year Zero is a bold but brief experiment in the turn-based genre that largely pays off. Despite my complaints, I still enjoyed it, and I’d love to see more from the franchise. If you can stomach a huge letdown of an ending, the cleverly orchestrated combat and unique world are worth checking out.