Recently, I’ve been spending some time with two interesting and novel takes on ‘XCOM-like’ tactical, turn-based games: Mario+Rabbids, and Mutant: Year Zero. These games offer up intriguing changes and new takes on a genre that has seen its fair share of growth in the past couple of years, and wanted to give my two cents on the ways these games have created something unique and interesting in this genre.
So, what constitutes an ‘XCOM-like’ turn-based game? There are two significant features that should be in the game, in order to “click” as an XCOM-like title for me: The top-down perspective, and the hard-as-nails challenge. Both are pretty vital, as top-down perspectives allow the player to get a reading of the map in practical terms, locate enemies, points of interest (such as cover, entry/exit points, etc.), allows the player to plan ahead and be surprised by what they can’t see due to fog of war effects, as well as making each failure or mistake a personal error rather than something that can be attributed to poor luck or lack of information; the difficult challenge also feeds into that notion. The player is increasingly challenged to overcome harder and more demanding situations, and each mistake is devastating, but every win is one to be savored. Furthermore, this is the type of game that needs you to understand it so well, that you can see the details and comprehend the mechanics fully, because that is the only way to win—that and some good fortune!
These games are loved by many people, but—regarding them as products—they have the same vital “issue” as Dark Souls: They are incredibly niche genres, that are unwelcoming to newcomers and don’t really diverge from the core aspects. Take “The Banner Saga” as an example: It adds a compelling story to the ‘XCOM-like’ formula, survival mechanics, and meaningful decisions, but overall it feels like you are playing a more beautiful version of XCOM with a more interesting story. This is where Mutant: Year Zero, and Mario+Rabbids, come in; they offer up something novel to this genre, and even though I’m certainly no expert on it nor is it my favorite genre, I would like to delve into what makes these games different enough from other similar games.
Let’s start with Mario and his surprising and dream-like foray into the XCOM-like genre: Beyond the fact that Nintendo is infamously air-tight with its IPs and very worried about making family-friendly video games (for context, this is an Ubisoft game where Mario holds a big-ass gun and shoots Rabbids like a stone cold killer), this was a surprise in how much adherence there was to that ethos and how novel that felt for the genre. Mario does not really kill these Rabbids, he just zaps them out of this screwed up universe. Moreover, this is a family friendly version of XCOM and that’s surprisingly engaging; this isn’t a difficult game to go through, especially for the early levels. The difficulty is there though, for those who seek it: Challenges are generally harder puzzle situations or extremely demanding encounters, but the freedom afforded to players by not having to worry about permanently losing one of their characters or having such a failure it dooms their entire progress so far, allows for more room to experiment with specific characters or squad roles. Furthermore, the goofy world of Mario+Rabbids makes it visually distinct from other games, and makes failure a lot less impactful; also, this is a game made by people who love Mario and have been given a chance to work with the franchise, so there are some incredibly good moments of fan service, like Luigi’s Overwatch ability named “Steely Stare” and zoomes in on his blank death eyes. All of these great ideas are what make the game so good, but also so much less compelling to play; without the loom of massive failure, winning doesn’t feel so good. But, that is why this game has been dubbed “XCOM Jr.” by many, and I agree that it is a good entry point for the genre.
What about Mutant: Year Zero then? Well, that game is a complete opposite to Mario in almost every way! If Mario is an entry-level foray, Mutant is a game for people who’ve played hundreds of hours of XCOM-likes and want a new challenge; this is a hard game, a game I’ve died in the tutorial because I was not careful! Where Mario feels like a game you can brute-force your way through it, I had to restart Mutant two hours in because I was not careful in selecting upgrades and skills. Mutant’s novel mechanic is a fascinating addition to the tactical genre and it makes this game feel special; essentially, you are placed in large sections with a bunch of enemies that are all more powerful than you, but you have the advantage of stealth. You can turn the tables on them, by eliminating a few of them in ambushes without alerting anyone else, and then take the rest by surprise. It is an incredible rush to successfully take down a group of enemies, lurking in the shadows as you wait for them to isolate themselves, and then take out their friends who have no idea what happened; it is also extremely difficult! It feels like an intense game of hide and seek, followed by a game of chess where the looser starts with less pieces and if they lose again, they die. There are also some pretty neat customization options, a loot system that feels pretty significant, goofy characters and writing on the edge of a very grim world (like finding a boom-box and the characters thinking that it is a box that explodes somehow), which give the game a good sense of personality.
Of the two games, I do think Mutant is the best one, but its issue is the same one I have with XCOM and other similar games: They are too intense, too unforgiving. They expect that a player will restart their game after a few hours because of a fatal error, or due to not understanding a mechanic completely; it’s why I never finished XCOM and why I’ll probably never finish Mutant either. That’s not to say I don’t think those are great games, but sometimes the unforgiving difficulty and the thrills created by the “do or die” scenarios are what drives me to excel and love a game, and sometimes the more relaxed and forgiving versions are what makes me finish a game and enjoy it for what it is. Maybe I’ll finish Mutant someday, and I certainly don’t regret trying it nor the time I spend (and am still going to spend) with it, but Mario’s goofy vibes and ‘XCOM Jr.’ sensibilities are what speak to me right now.