Mutant Year Zero: Road to Zero offers a refreshing twist on the classic XCOM formula, combining real-time and turn-based gameplay to create a hybrid tactical RPG like no other.

Like the semi-human beasts that grace its box art, Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is a mutant combination of real-time stealth elements and classic turn-based gameplay.

Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden isn’t afraid to tout its similarities to the XCOM series of tactical games – it even says so right in its own press release – but there’s much more to this game than its own promotional materials would have you believe.

The game begins with a quick series of flashbacks to set the stage. Global warming and nuclear war has brought about the end of the world. In the aftermath, those few who survived the fallout with their humanity intact have grouped together, building a safe haven suspended far above the ravaged ruins of the Earth’s surface. Led by a wise old man known only as the Elder, this bastion of humanity, known as the Ark, thrives amidst the destruction.

But things aren’t as good as they seem. The supplies that keep the Ark running are running low even as it continues to grow. Only a chosen few can survive in the radioactive wastes outside of the Ark’s walls. Known as Stalkers, these teams of hardy scavengers are tasked with scouting the dangerous wildlands for scraps and weapon parts. But when Hammond, the de facto leader of the Stalkers, goes missing, it’s up to a pair of snarky, fast-talking animal-men to find him.

Those animal-men are Dux, a bipedal duck, and Bormin, the, well, Boar Man. You control the duo through several interconnected stages that comprise a unified world. Much of the game is played in real-time and consists of exploring the various stages for scraps and gun parts that you can bring back to the Ark to upgrade your squad. The world is inhabited by groups of mutated humans, known as Ghouls, who roam the ruins with a chip on their shoulder, hungry for a fight. The camera is isometric and there’s enough fog to make it difficult to make out Ghouls from a distance. Fortunately, when you get close to an area occupied by a squad of Ghouls, one of your squad members will comment on the nearby danger and you can prepare yourself for combat.

Combat is divided into two distinct phases. Before you enter a battle, the game remains real-time, and it’s in these moments before combat breaks out that the game comes to life. You can split your group, controlling individual team members to position them for an ambush. Once they’re in place, you can opt to enter Ambush mode, where the game switches to the turn-based tactical interface heavily inspired by XCOM. In Ambush mode, you also have first priority for attacks, and if you can successfully take out an enemy without alerting his friends, you return to the real-time pre-battle phase and given the opportunity to reposition your units for the next strike.

You’re going to want to clear out as many units as you can in Ambush mode because this game is ridiculously difficult. The default difficulty mode is Hard, but even hardened veterans of tactical RPGs will want to turn it down. Bormin, the tank of the group, goes down in only three hits, and, although ammunition is infinite, most weapons only have the rounds for two or three shots before you have to reload. This constant switching back and forth between real-time stealth and turn-based combat is seamless and easy to pick up, and there’s nothing more thrilling than moving your units from cover to cover, avoiding the enemy and striking whenever you have the advantage.

If you get caught, however, the game becomes a purely turn-based affair. Some units will even call in reinforcements when this happens, so you’ll want to make them your priority. This creates a natural push toward prioritizing the pre-battle phase, because getting discovered before you’ve cleared most units can often spell the end of your run. This, unfortunately, stifles a lot of creativity in play, and you’ll find yourself constantly save scumming after each misstep in the pre-battle phase.

We recommend treating your first run like a tutorial. Once you’ve mastered the basics of gameplay, you’re going to want to jump right in to the Iron Mutant Mode (Mutant Year Zero’s equivalent to XCOM’s Ironman Mode). Without the option to reload saves, you’re forced to get creative with your movements and the game really opens up.

If you like a challenge, though, you’ll find a lot to like from Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden. At times it gets hard to the point of feeling unfair – even poorly designed. It’s a game that rewards tenacity and pragmatic decision-making. There isn’t much variety in weapons, skills, or enemy types, but the mix of real-time and turn-based phases is where the game gets its variety. Every victory feels hard-earned and if you’re willing to invest the time you’ll find a unique tactical game that’s rewarding in ways no other game is.

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