Blessed are the amnesiacs, for they shall inherit the earth. You think it would have been the meek, but they’re not a very assertive bunch. It also helps if you’re a mutant in these post-apocalypse times, because there’s nothing more useful than a wise-cracking duck at your side for a morale boost. Mutant Year Zero has got all that and more, touting a robust tactics system and tongue-in-cheek writing that left me smiling for the end times to come. It’s far from a perfect game, but it does a damn good job of adapting the tabletop RPG into a format The Ancients would find more palatable.
It is the future! Humanity has been hit with an apocalyptic event, so there’s a whole lot less of humanity and a lot more horrifically deformed mutants running around with guns. No one knows why or how the Ancients died, and it’s best to take The Elder’s word on things. You control a group of specialised hunter-gatherers known as Stalkers, collecting resources and information for your home base, the Ark. After a fellow group of Stalkers goes missing, it’s up to you to track down where the lads have gone, what happened and whether Eden truly exists. All of this is achieved by two separate yet wildly unequal gameplay modes: combat and looting.
The main pull of Mutant Year Zero is the combat. If you’re familiar with the newer X-COM games, you’ll immediately recognise the mechanics on show. You get two action points to do things each turn, areas are composed of tiles and cover is the difference between life and an embarrassing bullet hole in your skull. Where the game differs from X-COM is that all hit chances are multiples of 25%, and it’s very possible to achieve 100% hit rates. You’ll be maneuvering your better-than-human crew into positions where you’re guaranteed to hit, but your enemy will try the same thing. There are a lot less uncertainty and a lot more dread, and the amount of tactical depth on offer is staggering.
I was surprised at just how much planning went into each of my clicks, which is a damn good sign. Thinking through where you can move without getting shot, whether hurling a grenade is worth it, who to target first, what the enemy will do next, there’s just so many factors! You also acquire mutant abilities as the game goes on, adding to your potential arsenal of moves to make. Thankfully, you’re not left in the dark about how a move will play out since you can hover over a tile and see the percentage to hit enemies from that position. It’s a satisfying and well-implemented combat system, and you can always rig the battlefield in your favour by stealing a few AK’s.
The other half of the game is looting. Between combats, you’ll be able to walk around in real-time exploring and collecting scrap metal or weapon parts left by The Ancients. You might find some scrap in a broken down ute, or maybe you’ll hit upon a strange artefact with an apple etched into its back. This mode also allows you to position your crew into ambush positions before initiating combat. You can track patrol patterns of roaming ghouls, and a considerable part of the game is picking off enemies one-by-one in silence to make the area’s final battle more manageable. The interplay between these two modes is excellent, but the looting is nowhere near as good as the combat.
Where the combat offers up rich gameplay possibilities, the looting is just walking around aimlessly looking for stuff. Enemies will occasionally drop loot like Wile E. Coyote tackled by several shotgun slugs, but loot is usually found scattered around the area. It’ll turn up in broken cars, near a boat, under a tree, generally anywhere is free game to hide some metal rods. The problem is that there’s nothing else going on, you’re just walking around looking for shiny things with an awkward isometric camera angle. You’re not cracking safes filled with goodies or being led on by environmental cues. You’re just checking every corner because there might be something there. You wouldn’t want to leave anything unchecked, though, because you wouldn’t be able to help build up The Ark.
A core part of the tabletop RPG was building The Ark into a thriving community, and that’s kind of here in a vague sense. As you bring back more artefacts and explore new areas of the world, more items will become available from the shop and more buffs will become unlocked. There’s no RP here, but it makes for a clean experience. You don’t have any awkward moments where you need to talk to people or block off options because you angered the shopkeeper, you just listen and buy stuff. It’s a shame that The Ark isn’t more fleshed out with community building mechanics, but it works, so I guess I can’t complain too much. I think the strongest part of the game, though, is the writing.
The writing varies between passable and occasional brilliance. There’s a gritty tongue-in-cheek sense of humour here, and it sometimes works really freakin’ well. The mythical area of Izza and Fala, a place said to have been born from two gods madly in love, is a pizza and falafel joint with some faded letters. Bormin’s cynical view of The Ancients being greedy, hostile and foolish idiots with no sense of community is almost as funny as Dux’s incredulity at past technologies. Even on the Ark, the little stories you hear from the shopkeepers are fun enough to warrant a little chuckle. It’s easy to get absorbed into the world, and there’s plenty of secrets to uncover by finding notes left by some ghouls or PDA’s belonging to the Ancients. While the writers had a lot of fun with the setting and characters, the pacing and direction of the story itself leave much to be desired.
In a word, Mutant Year Zero feels very directed. You’re given a map of the overworld, but it’s barely filled out with locations, and you travel from one to the next in a fairly linear fashion. There’s the occasional offshoot, and it does open up later into the game, but locations are either locked off by high-level enemies or need exploring to continue down the main path. The tabletop game was all about uncovering everything surrounding you, but the video game feels more like a series of missions that you should do in a particular order. It also takes forever to unlock more crew members, and the story unfolds slower than an origami butterfly. Still, it’s pretty fun, and if you’re down for a tactical ride, this might be the game for you.
The most important takeaway from all this is that I had a good time with Mutant Year Zero. Me. I once disowned a kebab because it had a subpar mouthfeel. A kebab. Thanks to the deep combat and some delightful moments in the writing, I enjoyed my time with the game. Looting is a chore, and you can’t walk off the main path like the tabletop game, but it’s still a satisfying experience. I just pushed those parts out of my brain like the useless information it was, because after all, what use are memories after the apocalypse?