Watch 20 minutes of Mutant Year Zero, the XCOM-like strategy RPG with a duck man

A pig, a duck, and a mutant lady walk into a camp full of angry ghouls. There's no punchline—just a game over screen, because those ghouls lit me up with rifles and molotovs before I got a chance to move. Dux? Barbecued. Bormin, my gruff boar scavenger? Skewered. Selma? Also barbecued. Look, these ghoul guys live out in the Zone, what survivors in Mutant Year Zero call the wasteland of this particular post-apocalypse. Point is, they don't discriminate who they set on fire.

I especially like that Mutant's stealth system lets you keep characters in hiding, one-by-one, when you trigger a fight.

Lesson learned: in Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden, as in XCOM, the turn-based strategy game that heavily inspired it, positioning your characters behind cover is vital to staying alive. Unlike XCOM, though, Mutant Year Zero is part RPG and part stealth game, and my real mistake was failing to sneakily start the fight on my own terms. Most of my battles in Mutant Year Zero start with a few minutes of tense sneaking, where I position my party close to the enemy before triggering an ambush, allowing me to get the drop on them and attack first.

With silent weapons, like Dux's crossbow, you can pick off an isolated enemy and then end combat and move freely again, a technique I found satisfying every time I pulled it off. It also felt vital, because at least in the first couple hours of Mutant Year Zero's demo, I was always outnumbered, and a couple shots were enough to take down any of my characters. Medkits were in short supply. 

This is a very pretty, atmospheric game, though the Zone's woods are looking a bit samey after a few hours.

Even with careful planning, it's easy for fights to go wrong. I've had enemies flank me when I had my characters too spread out, and getting lit on fire deals damage over time that's especially brutal. In the fight above, I got out by the skin of my teeth, even though I silently took out two patrolling sentries before tackling the main batch of ghouls.

Judging by its early hours, the combat in Mutant Year Zero doesn't feel like it'll have nearly the depth or breadth of XCOM, with its classes and many weapon types and upgrade trees for both your base and your soldiers. But it does feel deep enough to stay engaging, because the fundamentals of XCOM-style strategy games are just so strong. I was always weighing the trade-off between moving out of danger or taking a shot, of risking a shot now or using "overwatch" mode to hit an enemy when it charges at me, of using a precious medpack or trying to scrape through a fight without getting downed.

I especially like that Mutant's stealth system lets you keep characters in hiding, one-by-one, when you trigger a fight; it's possible to reveal one character and draw the enemy towards you, then pop a closer one out of cover for a good flanking shot. But again, there's risk, since enemies that get too close can discover you.

Weapons can be upgraded for a price, and also equipped with attachments that modify their behavior.

Where the game really differentiates itself is in its RPG elements: exploring the Zone, a gorgeous and moody forest full of rusted cars and mossed over buildings, and listening to your characters chat with each other. They each have unique upgrade trees of mutations. Dux gets an early ability to trade some accuracy for a guaranteed crit, and a mid-tier skill lets him grow wings to reach high places or make long range sniper shots. The trees are simplistic, with just one or two abilities per tier, but do give you enough choice to nudge a character towards one playstyle or another.

And there's the potential for an interesting story as you try to save the Ark, a ramshackle city that houses the remnants of society. Near as I can tell, that's, like, 50 people, so things haven't been going great so far.

What I'm a little worried about is the exploration and RPG aspects of Mutant Year Zero never growing much more complex than what I've seen in its first two hours. I love the mood of the Zone's forest, but it's mostly devoid of interactable objects except the scrap you find to upgrade your equipment with back home. There's so far no decision-making other than "how do I start this fight" and "which character upgrades should I pick."

The Ark. For being civilization's last outpost, it sure doesn't look too heavily populated.

I like making those decisions, but for a game based on a pen-and-paper RPG, I'd hoped for characters to talk to, quests to find out in the world, and some degree of agency in how I shape my adventure. So far, I haven't really seen any of that. But maybe sidequests more sophisticated than what I've done so far—venture slightly off the beaten path to find a bit of loot—will come after the opening hours.

The personality, at least, I already mostly love. Dux and Bormin have a fun go-getter/grizzled veteran rapport, item descriptions are playful, and the ghouls you go up against spout off plenty of deranged ramblings. One thing, though: I really hope there aren't 30 hours of ducking duck puns ahead of me, because that particular line of jokes is already getting old after two.

Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is out in a month's time, on December 4.