The title is the last time I will be using the full name of the game because I feel like it would only cheat my word count. Mutant Year Zero seems to be a game that is flying under the radar and has been for the last year or so. Published by Funcom (Conan Exiles) and developed by The Bearded Ladies, a dev team out of Sweden, the game itself is based upon a traditional pen and paper RPG from, interestingly enough, Sweden. While I wasn’t initially interested in playing this game, the more and more I saw of it the more it piqued my curiosity. I can say after spending some time with it, that Mutant Year Zero scratches an itch I didn’t even know I had.
I hear this game get compared to X-Com alot. It’s a strategic turn based game with a nice leveling system, exploration and a decent stealth component. I really came into my gaming own on PS2 era JRPG’s and stealth games like Splinter Cell that if you make one mistake can result in you totally scrapping a level or fight and starting over from scratch. That is this game for me. You control an initial team of two characters, Bormin a warthog and Dux….a duck who are also known as Stalkers. Stalkers are post apocalyptic scavengers tasked with venturing out into the dangerous zone to keep the Ark, the last refuge for mankind, running. The Ark is where you will get backstory, buy supplies, upgrade weapons and unlock certain perks that come with finding artifacts out in the world. You can fast travel back to the Ark at any point and vice versa to any area you’ve already discovered, which after playing a game like Red Dead was so very much welcomed.
Combat encourages you to carefully scout each encounter to ensure you have the edge at all times. Often, towards my beginning time with the game, I would encounter two enemies and as I engaged with them the sounds would alert others close by quickly outnumbering my team. The game has numerous stealth weapons and a system to pick off straggling enemies so that when you do finally engage with a group you won’t be surprised. Along they way you collect scrap, armor, weapon parts and relics of the worlds past. These are all used as currency back at the ark. You earn XP for each encounter which can be put in to each characters skill tree, unlocking more health, and cool mutant powers like shooting someones kneecap leaving them unable to move or growing wings to over over the battlefield.
The story is mostly told via voice overs pushing it along between missions and you will get a chance during trips back to the Ark to sit and listen to the elder tell you about the world long gone. I have to say that I really love the approach to this and it really does a lot for the world building. The play between Bormin, the grumble no nonsense one, and Dux, the mouthy cocky, one is really fun as well. I felt invested in the story and the spin they put on “artifacts” found out in the world when discussing what a “boombox” or “iPod” was, was done so in a very fun and clever way. You are encouraged to explore every inch of every area on the map just to find a bit more about the world they left behind and how it got to be how it is now.
I really truly was surprised by my love of the game. They introduce enough variance throughout where the main game play loop does not feel like it gets stale. New enemies with new abilities come at a good pace as well as new characters. My biggest knock against it is the difficulty spike I perceived as I carried on from the initial opening to the first real mission. You go from one mission getting to down enemies with one shot to having ghouls come at you one or two levels higher that require a few rounds to take down. That and the game seems to funnel you towards level 25 or higher enemies while you still only maybe a level 10 or so. Even with this I can see it as a clear and deliberate design choice, within the world and the story it makes sense to be worried about finding enough supplies to upgrade your kits to survive another encounter and for you to truly need to think about each and every encounter before firing a shot. That said I still was able to clear encounters almost every time, granted I’m playing on easy since this is a new genre for me.
Before the release of Mutant Year Zero I don’t think I had a clear cut top three games of the year, but this one truly deserves to be on everyone’s radar. Its a fun, deep, challenging game that is different from anything else available right now with a lot of the same polish and care. Do yourself a favor and scratch that itch you may not know you had with this title.