A duck and a boar come to a bar, they get to the counter and purchase special skills. Did you expect a trite joke here? Well, strap in then, because Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is going to subvert your expectations in more than just one way. We recently got the chance to play an early demo of Mutant Year Zerothanks to the developer The Bearded Ladies. The demo clocks in at around 3-4 hours and gives a very in-depth early look at the tactical-stealth RPG.

The world of Mutant Year Zero is a dark one, both figuratively and literally. Rising sea levels, nuclear war, and deadly pandemics have left humanity in shambles. Most of mankind did not survive and those unlucky to live, had to witness civilization decay. Even worse, radiation and viruses led to all kinds of horrific mutations and aberrations on the remaining lifeforms. Humans and animals.

Most of what survived in this new world is vicious, brutal and merciless. These Ghouls roam the remains of previous civilizations called the Zone, the post-apocalyptic wasteland. Hunting the weak. The few sane living retreated into a floating city known as the Ark, the last safe haven on the planet. With their wise leader at the helm, the residents of the Ark rely on tough warriors, Stalkers, who venture into the dangerous Zone to scavenge for resources.

This is where our story begins. As a group of Stalkers, our job is to go out into hostile territory in hopes of finding and bringing back food and valuable materials to the Ark. The demo starts at the beginning of the game and puts us in control of two unlikely heroes: Bormin and Dux. A grumpy boar and a quippy duck who mutated into intelligent lifeforms.

What springs out at first glance and stayed with us for the entire playthrough is how gorgeous Mutant Year Zero looks and sounds. It’s almost a shame that the fixed-height camera doesn’t allow us to zoom into the beautifully crafted world. Likewise, the voice over is spectacularly well-done with fitting and believable dialog.

A short tutorial takes us through a quick stroll in the Zone. Here we get to learn and see the world, our heroes, enemies and, of course, the gameplay. Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is a tactical-strategy RPG with stealth elements. In practice, this means gameplay is split in two distinct phases. Real-time stealth exploration and turn-based strategic combat.

The world in Mutant Year Zero is made up of lots of tightly designed levels which are interconnected with exits and entrances. A typical playthrough starts with the exploration of a level. In real-time, we control our party through a moderately-sized level. Everywhere we look, there are remnants of the past and its inhabitants. The foolish Ancients who are guilty of the state of the planet now. Scattered throughout the levels are valuable scrap and weapon parts which we can use to purchase items, weapons and gear at the Ark. Special artifacts can be traded for Perks, and Weapon Mods can be attached here as well. There are also rare loot chests which harbor extremely useful gear.

Besides looking pretty cool, these items play a crucial role in combat as well. Whether it’s damage protection or increased critical hit chances, your gear, weapon mods and skills are of utmost importance. Upgrading your weapons to deal more and special elemental damage is only part of the equation. Levelling up your party and unlocking skills is the truly transformative aspect of gameplay here.

With every enemy killed, every mission accomplished your team gains XP. These come in form of Mutation Points you can spend to unlock all kinds of inventive active and passive mutations (skills). Of course, there are also more traditional mutations in form of HP increases and extended movement during the combat phase.

The strategic nature of combat can be further extended by exploring the area for advantageous spots, such as positioning your sniper at a higher vantage point. It’s still imperative to not rush into combat, no matter how well-equipped you are, as even basic enemies hit hard and against more powerful ones, your party will end in the ditch pretty fast.

Stealthily navigating next to enemies gives us the opportunity to finish single enemies without alarming the group. Thinning out the herd is a key tactic before engaging in large-scale combat and tips the balance in our favor ever so slightly. Not every enemy can be dealt this easily however, and at some point, we initiate open combat, of course after positioning our team beforehand.

Emerging victorious is pretty manageable against smaller groups of low-level enemies, but we had to reload our saves several times towards the end of the demo. Trial and error and learning the weaknesses of enemy types is the name of the game here. I hope the developer will implement a narrative mode difficulty setting at launch, for those who are not into the punishing nature of tactical-strategy.

After dealing with all enemies on our way, we finally arrive at the Ark and this is where the story really kicks off. The leader of the Ark summons us to him and puts us on a very important mission. Fellow Stalker and gearhead Hammon has gone missing in the Zone alongside a group of Stalkers, and it’s up to us to find and bring him back. His technical knowledge is indispensable to the survival of the Ark. We immediately take off en route to Hammon’s cabin in the Zone.

After disposing of Ghouls and mutated wildlife, we find Hammon’s empty cabin and an ominous note left in it. An unusually modern machine crash-landed nearby and Hammon believes it originates from a place called Eden. A fairy-tale among Ark inhabitants who believe in a safe zone, where everyone is happy. Hammon and his team went forth to find this mythical place. We take our party on a journey into uncharted Zone territory in hopes of finding Hammon and stumble across Selma, a Stalker from Hammon’s crew who was left behind. She joins our team and leads us to a harbor. Here, we need to board a ship to progress further but a large group of Ghouls led by a powerful mutant is blocking us. It’s going to take all of our skill and tactical finesse to emerge victorious here.

And this is where the demo ends. A great cliffhanger in an intriguing story and a tough fight. I was thoroughly hooked on the story and wanted to know more about the world and its secrets. Clearly, there is more in this world than just a wasteland. With an early-point taste of the game, many interesting skills were out my reach but just reading the descriptions were enough to fantasize about tactical applications and new ways to approach combat. In terms of polish and performance, Mutant Year Zero is already up to a high standard, and with about a month left in the oven, it should get even better.

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