America - Front
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By Evan Norris 31st Jul 2019 | 3,996 views
[Editor's note: Publisher Funcom has released a large day one patch that noticeably improves the visual performance of Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden on Switch. Images are clearer and less muddy; shadows are more gradual; and resolution is heightened. It still lags behind PS4 and Xbox One, especially in the area of atmospheric lighting and effects. Improvements in handheld mode are less pronounced.]
The industry needs more games like Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden. Sitting snugly in the middle space between big-time "AAA" releases and small-scale independent titles, it's a modest, mid-range turn-based tactical experience that, not needing to sell five million units to break even, can afford to be experimental and weird. At the same time, it enjoys the staff and resources needed to create high production values and up-to-date visual assets—at least on PC, PS4, and Xbox One. The Switch version, regrettably, is another story entirely. Despite developer The Bearded Ladies' successes in world-building, tactics, and stealth gameplay, it has allowed a huge graphical downgrade on Switch. It looks a generation old.
Based on the tabletop role-playing game of the same name, Mutant Year Zero takes place in a post-apocalyptic Earth where mutant survivors of pandemic and nuclear fallout have found refuge in the Ark, a fortified base led by the Elder, the only human inhabitant. Since the Ark is far from self-sufficient, the Elder sends his best mutant hunters and scavengers, known as Stalkers, out into the Zone to collect salvage and fend off Ghouls, savage humans who worship pre-apocalypse civilization. Two of those Stalkers are Bormin, a squat, grizzled anthropomorphic boar, and Dux, a sarcastic bipedal duck-man. When Hammon, the Ark's principal engineer and a fellow Stalker, goes missing in the north, the Elder sends Bormin and Dux to find him. This quest pushes the mutant twosome further outside the Ark than they've ever gone, tests their courage and loyalty, and eventually shines a light on a mythical place of safety called Eden.
It's impressive that the team at The Bearded Ladies brings the destroyed world of the Ark and Zone to life, without relying on overlong cut-scenes or extensive exposition. There are a handful of event scenes that take place at the beginning and end of quests and a few soliloquies from the Elder, but in general players absorb the post-cataclysm reality through exploration, visual cues, and character interactions out in the Zone.
Environmental, tangential storytelling is a big deal in Mutant Year Zero. As you push north and south from the Ark you'll discover the remains of human civilization, including notes left behind by survivors, ruined buildings, and mysterious, deactivated robotic drones. One of the game's many joys comes when Bormin and Dux—voiced splendidly by Enzo Squillino Jr. and Jared Zeus, respectively—stumble upon an ancient artifact and misinterpret its function. A defibrillator is mistaken for a massage device and a beer tap described as a "grogg milker".
Mutant Year Zero also spins an engaging, intriguing mystery about the Zone, Eden, and the origin of Earth's mutated survivors, but unfortunately it ends on an anti-climax. It feels like there’s a missing third act. Hopefully the game's DLC "Seed of Evil", which launches today, will tie up some loose ends. Let's also hope the title gets a full-length sequel, since its mechanics and gameplay loops deserve a new laboratory in which to evolve.
Those gameplay elements include turn-based tactics—in the style of XCOM—plus exploration and stealth action. As Bormin and Dux, and eventually a third party member (there are five total), players will explore the wasteland via a series of closed environments. Each of these maps hide loot in the form of broken weapons, electronic parts, and in rare cases new weapons and protective gear, and host a platoon of angry, violent Ghouls.
Take on the full complement of foes head-on and you will most assuredly die. To succeed, you'll need to creep noiselessly past each patrol, separate outlying Ghouls from the crowd, and pick them off with silenced weapons. Only then can you bring out your loud weapons and grenades and face what's left of the enemy. It’s unbelievably gratifying to devise a plan, place your Stalkers at the right vantage points to maximize critical hit chance, and dispatch an unaware Ghoul before he knows what hit him.
Once in combat, typical genre rules take over. Each Stalker has two action points, to spend on movement, reloading, shooting, overwatch (fire when an opponent moves into your field of view during its turn), or a special mutant ability. Elevating the traditional tactical mechanics are the aforementioned stealth gameplay; smartly-designed maps with lots of cover spots, choke points, and elevated platforms; and the freedom, via a combination of mutant abilities, weapons, and gear, to create a makeshift specialized class. With the right long-range gun, hat, and unlocked perks, Dux, for example, can become a formidable sniper.
While Mutant Year Zero succeeds on the stealth, tactical, and investigative fronts, it misses a few golden opportunities. Several mutant abilities are repeated across all characters, resulting in samey, duplicative builds. Furthermore, the ability skill tree is rather small and straightforward. More elaborate, personalized mutation possibilities would add strategic depth to the process of building a roster, and grant each Stalker a distinctive mechanical identity.
The game also fails to introduce diversity in its mission design. For the vast majority of the game, Stalkers will enter an area, pick off stragglers, defeat every last Ghoul, and claim any left-behind loot—a rewarding cycle, to be sure, but also an unvarying one. Only once in the adventure does the team run into a quest-giving NPC, a persuasive Ghoul named Lux who asks the team to reclaim a stolen key. Additional NPCs and side-quests would go a long way toward breaking up the routine of tactical combat. It would also add new optional elements to the title. Mutant Year Zero does offer "optional" environments off the beaten path, but in reality players will need to tackle every map in the game in order gain the experience points necessary for survival. This is a hard game, even on the "normal" difficulty setting.
Finally, the Ark itself is a bit of a lost opportunity. It’s a series of static storefronts chosen via cursor—fully functional but not the kind of open, interactive marketplace that could host those absent NPCs.
The Switch port of Mutant Year Zero, then, has carried over the peripheral storytelling, turn-based tactics, mutant abilities, and post-apocalyptic setting from the original game, unchanged. What's new is the severe graphical downgrade. The Nintendo version is inferior in every visual way. Atmospheric lighting is non-existent, resolution is low, image quality is poor, and much of the environmental density from the PS4 and Xbox One incarnations is missing altogether. There's an unappealing starkness to the game, with bright, white lights and dark, empty shadows. Things are even blurrier and muddier in handheld mode. It all looks old and outdated.
If you can look past the unappetizing visuals, there's a fun, thoughtful stealth-strategy hybrid waiting underneath. With the tools and assets to craft a believable game world and tell a convincing post-apocalyptic story, and with the fiscal freedom to deliver a turn-based adventure starring a talking duck, Mutant Year Zero delivers a solid "AA" experience. Greater diversity in mission design and more depth in character customization would be nice, but in general this is a game worth trying—just not on Switch.