SAN FRANCISCO — Today in “it’s really big in Sweden,” consider Mutant Year Zero. This popular pencil-and-paper RPG hasn’t had much of a following in the United States, but a new video game adaptation may be about to change all that. Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is a tactical RPG set in a bizarre post-apocalypse, where humans can turn their skin to stone and talking ducks sprout pixie wings to take potshots with sniper rifles. Who said dystopias can’t be fun?
The developers of Mutant Year Zero showed me how a whole level might play out at GDC 2018, and the game already looks like a solid bet for fans of XCOM-style strategy games. They showed off a relatively early mission in the game, and took control of Bormin (a tough-talking bipedal boar), Selma (a human with enhanced abilities) and Dux (the aforementioned duck). The three adventurers had to take out an encampment full of irradiated Ghouls, as well as the deadly mech the Ghouls had acquired.
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While combat plays a big role in Mutant Year Zero, the developers were also quick to highlight the game’s adventure elements. The game is not simply a series of combat encounters. Instead, every area requires exploration, and gives players the opportunity to fight on their own terms. For example: the Ghoul base was heavily guarded at the front, so the developers took Bormin and friends around the back, picking off smaller groups of enemies as they went. This made the final encounter that much more manageable.
Combat itself is a turn-based tactical affair. You can position your characters anywhere you like before you initiate combat (unless the enemy catches you unprepared, of course). Then, you take turns, trading blows with Ghouls until one party stands victorious. During you turn, you can move around the battlefield, hide behind cover, take potshots at enemies, activate special abilities or activate an “overwatch” ability that lets you fire on enemies that cross your path during their turns.
There’s nothing too unfamiliar about the combat for tactical RPG veterans, but the real joy is building up your party over time and seeing how well it performs against enemies. Characters find new equipment and gain experience to level up over time. Better still: You’ll occasionally have to choose between two new special skills, but you can switch back and forth between them anytime you’re not in combat. An ability that lets Dux hover high in the air may be useful in an open field, but you can turn it off if you’re fighting in a cramped cave. Eventually, you’ll recruit six party members in total, letting you customize a group that totally suits your playstyle.
Exploration has benefits beyond simply micromanaging combat, however. In the demo level, the party picked up valuable bits of story information from reading documents scattered around the enemy base. One document in particular explained that they could reprogram the captured mech to target any humanoid — not just the Ghouls’ enemies. By sneaking past the Ghouls and fiddling with the mech controls, they turned what could have been a disastrous battle into a relatively simple one.
The game will come out on PS4, Xbox One and PC later this year, although the developers have not yet decided on a price. If you’re absolutely dying to see what the setting is all about before then, you can check out the pencil-and-paper rules, now in English for the first time, courtesy of Modiphius Entertainment. Swedes have been enjoying the setting since 1984, so there’s obviously something to it.