Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden – Deluxe Edition review: Real-time stealth meets turn-based tactics

Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden was, I think, one of the most overlooked games of last year. A lot of those who played it rave about it, and it reviewed well, but it seems to have been little more than a blip on the radar for the majority of people—myself included. That’s a real shame, because it’s an excellent game, and one that deserves a lot more attention it got.

Sadly, it looks like the same thing might happen for the Switch version of the game, released at the end of July as Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden – Deluxe Edition. Switch ports often have a way of generating new interest in games, even when they don’t have Nintendo’s direct marketing support, but—while I don’t know what actual sale figures and player numbers look like—there seems to be very little discussion happening around Road to Eden‘s Switch launch. 

Again, that’s a shame. This game deserves better.

The basic idea is simple: taking place in one of the more creative takes on a post-apocalyptic setting we’ve seen, it combines real-time exploration and stealth elements with turn-based, tactical combat. Outside of combat, you can freely move around to explore each map and search for resources and loot, with enemies unaware of your presence so long as you avoid their (clearly marked) areas of detection. Once you engage in combat, everything becomes turn-based and tied to a grid, with a focus on making good use of cover and positioning to give yourself the upper hand and avoid getting your party blown away.

What makes Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden work so well is how effectively these seemingly disparate systems work in tandem.

Every map has enough enemies that if you were to just directly engage them, you’d quickly find yourself overrun, no matter how accomplished a strategist you are. Rather, the goal is to first try to isolate and take out as many enemies in smaller skirmishes as you can. Typically, you’ll do this by waiting for an individual foe to patrol away from the group, then ambushing them, thus initiating turn-based combat while said enemy is still unaware of your presence. Until you alert the foe, you’ll just keep getting turns back to back, allowing you to position your party and set up for a silent assault that’ll hopefully succeed in killing the target in a single turn. 

“In a single turn” is the trick here. Just sneaking up on an unsuspecting enemy in Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden isn’t enough to earn a stealthy kill; you have to be able to dish out enough damage with your assortment of silent weapons to take out the target before they get a chance to react. If you don’t, they’ll get their turn and, almost always, will begin by hollering for their friends. 

As the game moves along and enemies become stronger and more plentiful, this strategy of picking foes off one by one becomes more complicated. Some enemies simply can’t be killed in a single turn no matter what you do; others are found in groups that can’t easily be separated. This creates a need for more creative approaches using each character’s unique abilities, and more big-picture thinking about the layout of the map, where different squads of enemies are located, how far any unavoidable noise will travel. It makes for a fascinating approach to tactical gameplay that’s as much about the pre-fight planning and setup as your actual approach to combat and how you improvise when the shit inevitably hits the fan.

A small but well thought-out cast also helps. There are five characters total, two to start with and three more who join over the course of the story, and from those, you can choose any three to form your active party. Each of them fills a very different archetype, from Dux’s skills as a sharpshooter, to Bormin’s tank-like stature and shotgun, to Magnus psychic powers. They all bring something new to the table in the form of their unique skills and abilities, though some stand out more than others—Bormin and Magnus especially are borderline essential to any party for their unique ability to temporarily neutralise foes, Bormin with a three-turn stun attack and Magnus with a two-turn mind control skill. The possibilities that arise from those are spectacular.

I should probably also mention that each of these five characters is a mutant. Dux is a six-foot duck in a leather jacket, who walks around with a feather hanging out of his bill like it’s a cigarette. Bormin is a massive, humanoid boar. Magnus and Selma are both generally human-looking, but with psychic powers and the ability to turn to stone, respectively.

This is because Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden takes place in the aftermath of a nuclear war that seemingly wiped out the entire human race. The only people left are mutants with no knowledge of the world before the fallout, and the “Ghouls”—humans gone feral—that roam the wilderness. Most mutants live in the relative safety of an elevated settlement called the Ark, and a select few among those get the lucky job of venturing out into the “Zone” below in search of the scrap and materials that the Ark needs to keep running.

At the start of the game, Dux, Bormin, and the rest are some such lucky souls, but they soon find themselves venturing further out into the Zone than any other mutant has before in search of a missing engineer called Hammon—the one person who can keep all the Ark’s machinery working. As you’d expect, things escalate from there; it seems Hammon’s left in search of some mythical paradise called Eden, which has piqued the interest of a cultish group of Ghouls. You can probably guess where things might go from there, but even when it gets predictable, Road to Eden never stops being a captivating journey.

The setting plays a big part in making the story that unfolds as worthwhile as it is. Despite the seriousness of the post-apocalyptic premise, Mutant Year Zero isn’t afraid to have fun with the idea of a cast that has no memory of life before the bombs. Among the many collectibles scattered around the game’s map are artifacts left behind by the “Ancients”—things like iPods, boom boxes and fridges that spark some entertaining speculation about what they might have been used for. An early trip to the “Cave of Fear” has the party questioning why the Ancients would have a burial ground in such an odd place… but it turns out they’ve just misunderstood the purpose of a fairly mundane road tunnel.

These sorts of little details breathe life and colour into Mutant Year Zero‘s world, and make it fascinating to explore.

The story is also reasonably concise, which is a breath of fresh air in a games industry that’s obsessed with making everything bigger and more bloated than it needs to be. Road to Eden has a story it wants to tell and it tells it, without trying to needlessly overcomplicate matters or force in unnecessary extra chapters just to pad out the running time. All told, you’re probably looking at 15 to 20 hours to play through the main story (depending on your playstyle), which isn’t exactly brief, but is a welcome refrain from the 50+ hours RPGs tend to demand of you. The Deluxe Edition expands on that a bit with the inclusion of some DLC—a challenge mode, and a new chapter to the story that includes a sixth party member—but even then, it’s not going to become a huge drain on your time.

As good as the substance of Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is, the Switch port does suffer on a technical level, no doubt due to compromises that had to be made to get it up and running at all. I’m not someone who tends to care (or even notice) things like resolution or textures, but even I found the presentation here underwhelming to the point of being distracting. Textures are flat and muddy, and the game seems to render at an even lower resolution than the Switch’s native settings and then scale up, resulting in a blurry finish. This is true in both handheld and docked mode.

If you can put up with that, there’s definitely some convenience that comes with having a game like this on Switch. Otherwise, you might be better off picking up on PC or one of the more powerful consoles, where—at least judging from the screenshots—the game looks gorgeous.

Whatever your console preference, this Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is a game that’s definitely worth picking up. Even if you don’t typically like turn-based tactics, the clever combination of stealth, real-time exploration, and turn-based combat makes this game worth a look. If nothing else, come for story about a mutant duck and boar in one of the more creative takes on a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

The publisher provided a copy of the game to Shindig for review purposes.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.