Mutant Year Zero is so tough that only one badass has beaten its demo (me)

I've been referring to Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden as 'Duck XCOM' since Wes first covered it back in March. Today, I played a solid 45-minute demo of the game, which is based on a Swedish pen-and-paper RPG that was particularly huge in the '80s, and combines turn-based combat with a light stealth system that lets you get the drop on enemies ahead of battle. 

It's also pretty tough, and I know this because as of about 4 PM on Wednesday August 22nd, I'm the only one (presumably except the developers) who has beaten its Gamescom demo. Here's proof, and an awkward picture of the back of my head:

Animal kingdom

You move around the world of Mutant Year Zero in real time, and when you come across a group of enemies while exploring, you're shown red detection circles that you have to avoid. You can lower the detection space significantly by crouching. The idea is that you can plan ahead on an attack: conceal one or two party members in cover, then have another start the fight by ambushing. 

My party consists of Dux, the duck, who carries a crossbow, but who I equip with a rifle that's obviously better in a shootout. He can also use his wings to fly out of target range of some enemies, with the right upgrade. There's also pig man Bormin, who seems like a heavy party member, and has a handy ability that lets him charge an enemy and stop them from performing actions for a whole turn. Finally, Selma carries a silenced pistol in this demo, and has a power where she can get plant life to hold enemies still.

The characters chatter as they wander through the environment, dropping little bits of world building. Dux comments on the lack of duck bodies around the place versus the high numbers of human corpses, and as a setting, this overgrown zone of a 'post-human' locale is spooky and intriguing. It feels like exploration is a pretty important part of the game, and I'm excited to unravel this offbeat backdrop, even knowing little about the source material. 

This game loves setting fire to things.

This game loves setting fire to things.

The stealth system works well, too. You might decide to begin an ambush by throwing a grenade, and picking the right moment could mean you catch multiple enemies in its blast radius. It also heightens the tension of walking through the world—you'll hear enemies talking to each other before you open fire, and if you're particularly careless, you might get their attention before you're supposed to, removing your advantage. It means this feels like much more than an XCOM clone, in case the duck guy didn't give it away already. The pace of combat and UI feel similar, but it's another exciting example of how the staples of XCOM are forming a genre.

Zero effort?

If you're wondering why I'm the only one who's beaten this demo after almost two days of Gamescom, my terrible secret, reader, is I that I played it on easy mode. Sorry! There's a reason I did this. Ordinarily I would pick normal for a review or preview, but the developers made a point of saying no one had finished the demo, after many media appointments. Knowing I wanted to write about it, I thought I should at least give myself a shot at seeing everything on offer if I was going to comment on it.

It's still surprisingly tough on easy, though, even with a few soft touches like restoring your characters' health after a battle. It's not like the gentle empowerment and all-conquering satellites of an easy XCOM campaign. The difficulty settings are described to me as "hard, harder and hardest," and I believe it. The developers mention it'll take around 15+ hours to finish the campaign on lower difficulty settings, and over 20 if you go higher.

I still failed this demo three times, and I think it's because I initially tried to play Mutant Year Zero like XCOM. The unusual powers of your heroes are key to winning battles, and it was only when I dabbled with those that I started to feel like I was pulling some real strategies together. The final scrap in the demo is incredibly tricky. It's against a cult leader and around five or six of his followers, one of which is a sniper. If you group your heroes too close together, the leader, who has a ludicrous amount of health, will perform a lightning attack that conducts through all of three of them, doing heavy damage to each. Keeping your party separate is key, then, along with trying to dispatch the leader as quickly as possible.

I decided to go all in on taking out the leader on the first turn. I had my pig guy, Bormin, use his special charge attack on the leader, beginning the battle and immediately stopping him from attacking. I got my other party members as close as possible, getting Dux to perform a headshot at close range, which did critical damage. By the second turn, the leader was dead, and while the rest of my party was almost burned to death by molotovs tossed by the remaining soldiers, I won with all three of my mutants alive. 

That's my fascinating story of success, then. Not all of the mutants' powers will be useful all the time. Making Dux fly, for example, doesn't protect him from sniper fire, so remaining in cover seemed like the smart way to go. In some situations, however, I'm sure it'll offer real advantages in terms of positioning. 

Despite being a little gruelling, then, I find Mutant Year Zero's curious mix of elements incredibly appealing, and I look forward to meeting more party members beyond these three and seeing what kind of weird stuff they can do—the developers mention there's at least one more. How about a beefy mouse in a tuxedo with a flamethrower that doesn't play by the rules?

Mutant Year Zero is out on December 4. Please note that I won't be updating this article if someone else beats the demo.