Review: Zeno Clash

John Funk | 28 Apr 2009 13:00
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The weapon combat in Zeno Clash isn't all that great, but Ghat has a significantly more mundane weapon that's also significantly more fun - his fists. The vast majority of combat in Zeno Clash involves getting down-and-dirty with opponents in a good, old-fashioned brawl. Zeno Clash may well be the first first-person-brawler; if it isn't, it's certainly the first that I've ever played.

Melee combat in Zeno Clash is simple - you can do a light punch, a strong haymaker punch, you can block and dodge, or beat people with whatever weapon you're holding. It's simple, it's effective, and it's entertaining. There's a very satisfying heft to the game's combat; blows feel as weighty as they should, and like last year's Mirror's Edge, the game does a good job at making you feel like you're controlling a body and not a camera hovering six feet off of the ground.

One particularly nice touch is that enemies will be armed, and if you hit them hard enough they'll drop the weapon, allowing you to pick it up - but the reverse is true: Take a hard enough hit, and you'll be disarmed, and the enemies will scramble to grab the weapon before you do. Fistfights become brawls, with all participants involved trying to get their hands on the guns before anyone else. Yeah, the fistfighting is more effective (and fun) than using the weapons, but better the gun be in your hands than the enemy's, right?

The base mechanics of Zeno Clash are strong, but it suffers in the details and execution. Some of the more advanced combat maneuvers are frustrating to pull off, the game can be temperamental when it comes to switching your focus in combat, and despite the range of abilities at Ghat's disposal, it's often much more effective to simply spam your heavy punch over and over again. The voice acting is also ... well, let me just say that it's made me look back on the cast of Star Ocean 4 more favorably: They were at least actors (with crappy parts to read). Most of the voice work is laughably amateurish, which makes sense given that it seems to be done by the developers and their friends. Even so, it feels somehow ... fitting, given the outlandish cast of characters.

The game is also very, very short. That's not necessarily a bad thing, though - it meant that the game was over before it had a chance to wear out its welcome and get old, which it was dangerously close to doing by the time it was over. It bears mentioning, though: The ending is bizarre. The ending makes the rest of the game look normal in comparison. I'm pretty sure I understood, say, the notoriously obtuse conclusion of Evangelion, but Zeno Clash just left me scratching my head with a feeling of "...what?"

You got some 'splainin' to do, ACE Team.

Bottom Line: Fun and viscerally satisfying melee combat supports lackluster gunplay, with intense and chaotic brawls getting the blood pumping. It's not very polished, and it's very short, but it's so creative and original that you can almost just overlook it, especially for the asking price. Zeno Clash certainly gets an "A" for effort and imagination. If it seems too weird at first, just stick with it - I'm certainly glad I did.

Recommendation: If you've got a spare $20 lying around, give Zeno Clash a try. It's a game you really have to play in order to "get" it, and boosting small indie studios is always good.

John Funk thinks that being able to punt a pig into an enemy to knock him out automatically makes Zeno Clash a contender for GOTY 2009, but YMMV.

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