Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is an interesting evolution on the XCOM formula

Can this strategy adventure title capture the appeal of its tabletop roots?

Few games cast a larger shadow on their genre than XCOM. It's nearly as tired a point of comparison as Dark Souls at this point. I do it too much myself. In using that easy shorthand, we risk ignoring what new subtleties similar strategy games offer the genre, like Hard West’s demonic western aesthetic or Mario + Rabbids emphasis on character mobility.

Swedish studio The Bearded Ladies Consulting make its own contributions to strategy games hard to miss in Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden, while still naming XCOM as a major influence in the game’s marketing material. With publisher Funcom, the team aims to combine traditional grid-based tactics with real-time exploration and stealth. That combination may sound unwieldy, but in the private demo I attended at GDC, I was delighted by how smoothly the pairing played.

Based on decades-old pen-and-paper RPG Mutant, or more specifically the 2014 entry Mutant Year Zero, Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden marks the first time the franchise has crossed over into video games, excessive subtitles be damned. Encouragingly, despite the franchise’s inexperience in the medium, the devs behind the game have quite the stealth-action pedigree. Former Hitman (2016) lead level designer Lee Varley directs the title and he’s joined by a number of former colleagues from IO Interactive, as well as designer and Payday co-creator Ulf Andersson. During our session, Andersson lounges next to me while Bearded Ladies producer Mark James Parker pilots the gameplay and provides commentary.

Parker controls our mutant trio: Selma, Dux, and Bormin. As their names might suggest, Dux is a Daffy-esque anthropomorphic duck, and Bormin is a sort of... man-boar, if you will. Selma appears human, though her armor-like Stoneskin mutation keeps her from being officially classified as such. The three creep through some woods, untethered from any grid. Parker freely directs the stealthing squad toward hidden chests and narrative-heavy notes, the characters meanwhile whispering about threats ahead called Ghouls. We spot a small bridge leading to spotlights and patrolling silhouettes. Andersson says to avoid this way. The dead giveaway to danger? Electricity. If characters have use of this rare resource, they’re likely a force to be reckoned with. Parker takes a hidden side path, sighting two straggler Ghouls manning the skeleton of a dilapidated shack.

Around both enemies are circles representing their range of vision. When we flick on the mutants’ flashlights, the circles widen. Better to keep lights off. Parker enters combat mode, hoping to catch the closest Ghoul unaware. There’s no cut to black, no transitional cutscene; the grid simply materializes beneath Dux’s webbed feet. The team takes turns silently attacking the enemies. Dux uses his Moth Wings mutation to sprout insect wings and fly upward for a high ground damage bonus. And as quickly as it appeared, the grid vanishes and our characters are free to explore again. Parker loots a sniper rifle from a nearby chest, then fast travels back to somewhere called “The Ark” to ready for the upcoming fight.

As opposed to “The Zone,” the lawless post-apocalyptic lands where our heroes scavenge and fight, “The Ark” is their home base. Run by “The Elder,” the last living human, players return here to craft and upgrade weapons, inquire at the bar about rumors that lead to missions, and trade otherwise useless human “artifacts” for new mutant abilities. We don’t spend much time here, but Parker makes sure to purchase the “Aristo Helm,” an old top hat that further buffs Dux’s high ground advantage. I take in the sight of The Ark’s crumbling metal and wooden walkways before we fast travel back to The Zone.

We reappear in the same part of the apparently persistent world. The enemies are gone, the chest is still looted, and the nearby cover is still partially destroyed. We continue ahead, silently killing scouts, finding our own path into the heart of the enemy base. Parker splits the trio up, sending Selma around the side, Dux into a sniper’s perch, and Bormin into a barn, where he discovers a giant, inactive, killer robot. He reprograms it to attack indiscriminately when it eventually reactivates, then sneaks toward the center of the camp, barely missing the vision circles of patrolling Ghouls. Parker activates Bormin’s own Stoneskin mutation, leaving him ready to tank for the team when the action starts, taking no damage during the first turn.

The ensuing action apes XCOM so closely that the comparison now only feels fair to make. I won’t bother to give a play-by-play of this final fight, as imagining most any Firaxis-built tactical battle could do it justice. What I remain impressed by, as we watch the mech blast everything in sight, is how natural it feels to set up these conflicts. Bormin didn’t take turns with the enemy as he stealthed into the heart of the camp; he improvisationally tiptoed through shadows, offering the same real-time tension found in the games of many Bearded Ladies Consulting devs’ past. What follows might feel less innovative, but the openness of the pre-combat phase narratively and tactically contextualizes things in a refreshing way.

Though I’m put off by generic Ghoul barks like “Suck on this!” or Selma’s “I am a warrior up in this bitch!” I’m excited enough by the prospect of exploring this “tactical adventure game” at my own pace, even if the combat feels entirely borrowed from XCOM (albeit with publisher admission of this fact). It’s also a good sign that Bormin and Dux feel the most like real people here. Thanks to the pre-rendered trailer that preceded the demo, I want to find out who those people are.

There’s no firm release window for Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden beyond a loose “2018,” though you can look forward to the game hitting Xbox One, PS4 and PC when it eventually launches.