Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is pretty long name for a game with a straightforward pitch: what if XCOM but with animorphs? While it’s based off of a pen and paper role-playing game popular in Sweden during the 80s, developer The Bearded Ladies have made it their own by injecting the inspiration’s DNA into a turn-based tactical game. After close to an hour with Mutant Year Zero, I came away excited to play more, and not just because one of the characters I got to control was a duck in a top hat sporting a crossbow.
My demo consisted of guiding a party of three through a wintery wasteland patrolled by mutant creatures approximating zombies. Mutant Year Zero shifts seamlessly between free-flowing real-time exploration and grid-based combat once you’re spotted by enemies. In this way the game is able to combine elements of different games to create something that feels natural overall. While I was getting the lay of the land and searching for items or extra resources, Mutant Year Zero played like Diablomight. When I was in combat, I could plan out my squad’s actions like XCOM, spending limited action points to tell them where to move and who to shoot. Once combat was done, things immediately shifted back to exploration mode, like coming out of a random encounter in a turn-based JRPG, and I could go about my business stealthily trying to position myself for the next fight. The result is an added layer of player choice that helps Mutant Year Zero still feel somewhat like the role-playing game it borrows its name from.
“We didn’t really want to turn this into an RPG per se, because we thought that if that’s what we want to do then playing a tabletop is best,” Haraldur Thormundsson, the head of Bearded Ladies, told Kotaku in an interview. “We’re doing an RPG but within the framework of the video game format because you have free exploration where you’re building the story, you have the stealth element where you’re setting up your tactics, and as soon as you roll the dice you go into turn-based combat and you either come out the other side or you have to go back to planning just as they did in the 80s.”
Pen and paper RPGs have made a big comeback in recent years, helped along in part by the popularity of Dungeons & Dragons podcasts and Twitch streams, as well as the larger renaissance in tabletop games more generally. Mutant, originally published in Sweden in 1984, was one beneficiary of this trend, getting its first translated release in North America in 2015 as Mutant Year Zero. It takes place after an apocalypse which has led to the downfall of human civilization and the rise of mutated creatures, some of which look like people while others resemble animals resembling people, sort of like The Wind and the Willows meets Mad Max. Given humanity’s collective love of YouTube videos starring wildlife and the general sense that the world could fall apart at any moment, the appeal of the video game’s source material isn’t unusual, despite North Americans likely being unfamiliar with it.