Mutant: Year Zero: Indie Studio CEO Talks Tabletop Roots, Art Design, and Tactical Stealth Action
Turn-based strategy games were everywhere in the '90s and 2000s, but they're almost more of a niche genre these days. Creating a TBS game that draws heavy inspiration from an equally niche hobby -- post-apocalyptic tabletop RPGs -- is a bold move in an era dominated by MOBAs and twitch shooters. If the pre-release demo of Mutant: Year Zero is anything to go by, that bold decision just might pay off when the full game releases next month.
Haraldur Thormundsson, CEO of The Bearded Ladies, the small but passionate indie team behind Mutant: Year Zero, briefly chatted with me and had some tantalizing tidbits to share about the game.
"Mutant is a tabletop RPG that was popular in the 80s and 90s here in Sweden," Thormundsson explained. "We wanted to make a turn-based game set in the Mutant universe and felt that Year Zero [in its timeline] was a good setting to explore... we felt that [a video game] RPG could never do the original tabletop game justice."
The world of Mutant is a blasted and ruined landscape created by a convergence of various cataclysms. Regular humans are fairly rare; most survivors are mutants, and there's a lot of variety in how their genetic abnormalities manifest.
Dux and Bormin, the first two party members players will meet, are far more animal than human. The characters are visually striking -- weird, but totally straight-faced. It works.
Thormundsson reminisced about the dev team's longstanding love for the original tabletop game when talking about Mutant's character design: "When we started looking at creating the characters, we got inspired by a number of things, including the characters some of the dev team members were playing back in the early days of the pen-and-paper RPG."
Post-apocalypse settings obviously invite dark and depressing stories, but there’s also an opportunity to say something about hope or to take a more optimistic view of humanity. Dux, Bormin, and a handful of other Stalkers recruited later in the game are on some sort of journey to preserve one of the last remaining cities -- an admirable goal -- but Thormundsson was tight-lipped about Mutant's ultimate narrative tone. He described its world as "gloomy and beautiful at the same time."
Still, humor plays a major role in offsetting some of the game's darker undertones.
"I hope the game will also make you laugh, because you'll see the world through the eyes of the mutants, who are interpreting artifacts from the past -- sometimes incorrectly." Thormundsson is undoubtedly referring to scenes like one in which the protagonists discover an '80s-era boombox and confidently identify it as a bomb -- it's got "boom" right in the name, after all.
Mutant's more amusing scenes serve as welcome breaks from the world's bleak past and unforgiving environment, which are reflected and reinforced in the gameplay. Mutant offers players a variety of tactical options and upgrade paths for the party, but stealth and caution are always essential to survival.
"You can play the game Rambo-style in the very beginning, but if you don't start scouting and using tactics to thin out big groups of enemies, the game will get a lot harder," Thormundsson noted.
He went on to offer a word of caution about grinding, clarifying that success in Mutant: Year Zero hinges on much more than your stats.
"Thorough players who explore the map and do lots of side quests will be able to learn most skills for most of the party, but they'll never be superheroes. Enemies get stronger as you do. The biggest advantage of gaining more mutations is that they open up new tactical options; players still need to learn how to plan and use abilities effectively."
On normal difficulty, Mutant is challenging enough, but there are ways for players to make things even harder on themselves, including a permadeath Iron Man mode. Many side quests are high-risk/high-reward, offering tantalizing loot if you can fight through heavy resistance to get to it.
There's at least a little room for character customization throughout the main campaign's 20-ish hours. Each party member does have certain specializations and weaknesses, but players have some freedom to build the team differently.
"Each mutant can become especially good at certain things, but it is up to the player to pick mutations, weapons, and armor for each of the characters that change what they're able to do," Thormundsson said.
Buying skills and dividing gear between the party often comes down to a choice between shoring up a character's weaknesses or making them even better at their core skills. Both approaches have their pros and cons and will lead to very different scenarios in combat.
Bormin and his crew are set to venture into totally unknown lands, and with the full game still a few weeks away, we don't know much more about what they'll find than they do. The demo asks far more questions than it answers, teasing a dark and intriguing adventure story with tons of potential. If the story is half as solid as the gameplay, Mutant: Year Zero will surely be a can't-miss title for strategy fans.
Mutant: Year Zero releases for Xbox One, PS4, and PC on December 4. Keep an eye on our hub page for more news, previews, guides, and gameplay videos as we get closer to launch.