I almost didn’t give Zeno Clash a chance.

The way the game started off – with an obvious, ham-fisted tutorial “dream sequence” that taught me how to punch things – pushed some of my personal buttons, but it was more than that: To put it simply, the game was just weird. The character designs were strange, the landscapes were stranger, and it felt like a beat-em-up brawler but played like an FPS. It was a “Perfect Storm” combination; a game so bizarre and unfamiliar, that initially felt so unpolished … it almost turned me off it right then and there. But no, I shrugged it off, and told myself I’d give it an hour or two to see if it grew on me.

I’m glad I did. That isn’t to say my first impressions of Zeno Clash were incorrect: It is a brawler that plays like an FPS, it isn’t all that polished, and it is very, very weird. Of course, that doesn’t make it bad, it just makes it … well, odd.

Zeno Clash puts the players in the (proverbial) shoes of Ghat, a young man who has killed his Father-Mother – a ten-foot-tall hermaphroditic bird-person-thing with glowing, bulbous yellow eyes – and must flee the wrath of his dozens of brothers and sisters. No, that’s not a spoiler; that’s the beginning of the game. The plot alternates between the present – with Ghat and his companion Deadra fleeing their pursuers – and the past, showing the events that led up to Ghat’s assassination of his parent.

As you might have already picked up from the very existence of a “ten-foot-tall hermaphroditic bird-person-thing,” the world of Zeno Clash is not one most gamers will be used to. It’s a fantasy world through and through – not the standard “High Fantasy” world of Tolkien with elves, orcs, and dragons, but a land that is truly fantastic in the literal sense of the word.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to describe the bizarre aesthetic of Zeno Clash since I first played the game, and I still haven’t figured out how to do it. The closest I’ve come is something like “a prehistoric version of Lorne Lanning’s Oddworld a la Tim Burton,” but even that doesn’t do the game justice. While all vaguely humanoid, the characters in Zeno Clash are almost all recognizably not human, with most possessing some sort of anthropomorphized animal features. There are bird-men, there are pig-men, and then there are people who I’m not sure what they are, except they’re all varying degrees of ugly. Honestly, words don’t do the atmosphere and aesthetic sense of Zeno Clash the justice it deserves.

So, you’re in this strange and unique fantasy world, filled with strange and unique monsters and characters. You better have some strange and unique weaponry to deal with them, right? While there are guns in Zeno Clash, they’re just as primitive as the rest of the world, and feel kind of underpowered. The gunplay in Zeno Clash tends to be repetitive and uninspired, with your weapons getting the most use against countless waves of identical wildlife. For the most part, it’s fairly dull, with the notable exceptions being a pair of boss battles. Without spoiling things, here are two words: “squirrel bombs.”

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.

Stolen Pixels #85: Left 4 Dumb: Part 7

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