You know you’re about to be thrown in at the deep end when a game asks you to pick between the difficulty options of Normal, Hard, Very Hard, and a permadeath toggle for all three. Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is a brutally tough experience that will contuinally pull the rug out from under your feet even when you feel like you’ve got a good understanding of its mechanics, and it’s this dynamic that will make or break the title for many. XCOM-like tactical action is sure to turn heads, but when there’s a shotgun-equipped pig bearing down on your position, chances are you won’t have one at all.

It’s this presence of farm life that actually gives the fairly clichéd plot some legs. After the inevitable apocolypse strikes Earth, many of those left to pick up the remains take up residence in The Ark, a sprawling city that lives off the scrap of the lands and employs Stalkers to do its dirty work. You control a ragtag bunch of such labourers, going out into the world to scavenge for food, weapon parts, and anything else the capital city requires. The twist that sets Mutant Year Zero apart though is that your party kicks things off with a pig named Bormin, and a duck conveniently titled Dux.

It most definitely sets its group of characters apart from any other typical protagonist, and when another Stalker goes missing out in the wilderness you’re given a clear objective of search and rescue, but the game fails to really capitalise on what makes it unique. The world receives some degree of fleshing out via notes you’ll find throughout each and every location, but backstory largely falls by the wayside in order to push the narrative forward. It’s a shame because the tale of The Ark and how it came to be certainly has potential, but those in charge are most interested in the pursuit of a mythical city named Eden rather than the one set in stone.

Engaging in turn-based tactical battles is what you’ll spend the majority of your time doing in Road to Eden. Played in a very similar vain to that of an XCOM title, you’ll exchange turns with the enemy, move your troops about the battlefield, eliminate every foe you come across, and manoeuvre your soldiers into your positions for attrition and flanking. Each character can perform two actions within their turn, from moving to a position and taking shots to activating an ability and then hunkering down in order to boost your defence. It’s fairly standard stuff for the genre, but what happens in the lead up to those fights isn’t so.

You’re able to move about each environment at your will and engage in battles on your own terms, and it’s this that helps to incorporate a huge amount of stealth into Mutant Year Zero’s gameplay loop. You’re encouraged to the point where it feels essential to thoroughly analyse an arena before engaging in order to mark enemies that could be taken out without the rest of the pack being alerted. The game plays into this by giving every combatant a Metal Gear Solid-esque vision cone that alerts them to your presence if you were to cross it, unless you’re hiding. This mechanic allows you to study enemy patterns, set up shop for an ambush, and kill them all in the space of a single turn without anyone else noticing.

It’s a sophisticated system that allows you to slim down enemy numbers, and if you don’t take advantage of it then you’re going to be in for a very difficult time. Enemies in the early game hit like an absolute truck, and if you’re not getting the drop on combatants in pretty much every situation, the likelihood of an entire squad wipe is incredibly high. And even when you have taken out those adversaries on the fringes of the group, the game still poses a great challenge. Enemy health bars are frequently triple the size of yours, shots that pose a 75% chance of hitting seem to miss a little too often, and grenades feel weak when you’re lacking upgrades in the early hours.

Keep in mind that we played the game on the “easiest” difficulty level of Normal, and we don’t want to even imagine what it’s like when you crank things up. The experience gives way to frustration far too quickly, to the point where save scumming becomes a normal action to take in battle. It’s not really even about your character’s level either, it’s the gear you have equipped that plays the biggest role in surviving or dying.

And while the majority of that gear will be found out in the wilderness, if you’re not in the heat of an assault, you have the option of fast travelling back to The Ark to acquire some much needed enhancements: Delta’s Fix Tip exchanges the weapon parts you find out in the field for weapon upgrades, Pripp’s Place accepts Artifact points for passive improvements, while Iridia’s Shop takes scrap for items and weapon mods.

Alongside these purchased augmentations, mutations for each character can be purchased as you level up. You can either opt to boost their raw stats or use those points to buy upgrades that can have huge ramifications on the tide of battle, and it’s here where Mutant Year Zero really starts to get creative. Bormin can knock out an enemy for one turn with Hog Rush or turn invincible for his next set of actions, Dux can grow wings and fly up to high places or turn invisble until he takes a shot, while Magnus can sneak between covers and control other enemies.

Every character you meet along the way comes with their own skill tree, and it’s this that helps to shake things up. Unfortunately, though, they’re nowhere near extensive enough. You’ll easily have the likes of Bormin’s entire branch unlocked half way through the 15 hour experience, and while you can only have three equipped at a time, the variety on offer comes to a standstill at the title’s mid-point.

In the midst of all of this, though, the biggest kicker is how poorly the game runs. Every single area greets you with a load screen, and once everything has loaded in, the game continuously cuts out all audio for a number of seconds. The game chugs for that period. too, with framerate drops that slow things down. It’s a flaw that lasts no more than five seconds, but due to how often you’ll be loading in and out of each area, it becomes draining on the experience as you repeatedly encounter it. Elsewhere, the title gets the job done graphically, but there’s little to be impressed by visually outside of the character designs as their mutations take place.

Conclusion

While Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden has managed to build a cohesive system for tactical turn-based battles to take place in, it’s far too difficult for the average player. Hardcore genre fanatics are sure to get a kick out of proceedings, but those looking for a more introductory take on things will find more frustration than progress.