Let me paint you a picture.
You need directions, so you casually stroll into the nearest bar. Upon entry, you see a cross eyed bartender telling an anthropomorphic pig he can’t consume any rooster blood, then you walk a few feet to the left and find what appears to be a man in leather pants and no shirt wearing a bucket on his head, which happens to be attached to a chain, the end of which happens to be in his hand. No help there, so you look at the other bar patron, an insect looking fellow, and he graciously volunteers to be your guide. You both pass a potentially homicidal seamstreess on your way out the back, and then a dude with an elephant head attacks you in a vain attempt to defend Father-Mother, a creepy humanoid I can only describe an eight foot tall cross between the weapons seller from Resident Evil 4 and a peacock. Then, your guide turns on you and you get to try and kill everyone there with a large mallet.
It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to figure out that Zeno Clash is a bit…odd. Screen shots usually give a good indication of what you’re in for, or at least what genre the game in question subscibes too. Zeno Clash offers no such clues. For example:
Zeno Clash is uncomfortably weird. Calling it the videogame equivlent of an acid trip would be a disservice, as Zeno Clash features much more palpable sense of physical discomfort. Its visual style is grubby, for lack of a better word, and the entire aesthetic feels like a cross between failed claymation experiments, alchemy day at the zoo, and a throbbing hangover. Avatar’s largest bullet point was its ambition to craft a thematically different universe, a departure from what we commonly understand as conventional existence via a thematically different world and culture. Whether that film accomplished its goal or not was debatable, but I can say with absolutely certainty that Zeno Clash hits that nail right on the head.
While visual storytelling is Zeno Clash’s primary means of narrative absorption, a scattershot plot is also present. You’re Ghat and apparently you just committed to sin of murdering Father-Mother, the aforementioned gangly giant. This is a problem because, as the name implies, Father-Mother is the hermaphroditic matriarch/patriarch to a local family, and Ghat happens to be one of his/her/its children. Despite existing in a culture that celebrates cannibalism, Patricide is discouraged pretty much everywhere, and your brothers and sisters are understandably pissed about the whole killing their/your parent(s?) thing.
That seems relatively cut and dry, but the means of conveyance are quite bewildering. Zeno Clash’s linear path (not unlike Half Life 2, which isn’t surprising since it’s a Source engine game) is split down the middle in terms of flashbacks and progression, and details are often delivered in conversation via some rather eccentric and/or creepy characters. Metamoq’s mumbling, nearly incoherent delivery serves as not only a tutorial for the games mechanics, but also to usher in a rather foreboding sense of dread. Deadra is more or less Alyx Vance (again, hello Half Life) and both and Golem and Hunter are…really weird. The whole thing seems deliberately unclear, which is pretty much Zeno Clash’s general modus operandi.
I want you to hit me as hard as you can
First person combat is the focus of the mechanics, which draw a heavy influence from the largely primitive world of Zenozoik. While you occasionally stumble upon some hastily constructed firearms, they seldom amount to little other than pea shooters. Zeno Clash is a first person brawler, meaning most of the guns you’re going to unleash are your left and right fists. One trigger is mapped to a softer series of three punches, while the other, which you can charge for a bit, is reserved for a strong punch. Blocking is assigned to a different button, and, in combination with left or right on the dpad, can be used to dodge incoming blows. A counter/counterpunch system is also present, though it wasn’t a set of moves I was able to pull off with any consistency.
A typical fight in Zeno Clash begins with a brief versus screen of your opponents before moving onto their inevitable punishment. Locking on to a specific enemy is encouraged, but you’re also able to punch or kick in any direction you please. Bigger enemies require the use of mallets or clubs, and a few geographical challenges (like, oh, a giant beached whale being used as a sniper tower) require the use of imprecise “guns.” While the inclusion of weapons seems counterintuitive Zeno Clash’s first person brawling mayhem, they’re rather underpowered, and they get knocked out of your hands easily.
Zeno Clash strength lies in its perspective and its presentation. The weird atmosphere is a fantastic backdrop, but punching people the face from a first person point of view is the endearing hook. Melee combat has been done before, but the sense of weight and place and Zeno Clash is unrivaled. Knocking people out is pretty damn brutal, but rather minuscule in comparison to the punishment Ghat receives. You’re going to get your ass kicked pretty bad at some point, and looking through Ghat’s eyes and seeing a mangled shadow or folded legs and torso (a first person game with an actual body! wow!) issues a terrific sense of brutality. I haven’t been punched in the face by an elephant in real life, but thanks to Zeno Clash have a pretty good idea of what that’s like.
Combat is unquestionably different, but doesn’t seem to have all the kinks worked out either. My biggest issue came with mapping the “pick up stuff” button the lock-on button, rendering it nearly impossible to grab a club on the ground when it’s surrounded by a hoard of aggressors. Hit detection also seemed rather imprecise, a fault most evident during the game’s final encounter. Things are quite hectic, which is understandable, but the small window of opportunity I had to punch someone in the face was often squandered by trying to figure out the correct angle to nail the hit box. Kicking enemies when they’re down suffers a similar fate as well. It’s not game breaking, but those flaws put the brakes on an otherwise fun system.
Zeno Clash also seems to be at odds with its own design. On one hand, it’s a fantastic example of how to maximize resources for a (comparatively) lower budget game, but on the other hand it could have been streamlined. The settings are highly detailed and otherworldly, but also a bit claustrophobic. The character designs are unrivaled, but they repeat (literally, it’s the same guys) a little too often. The boss encounters work quite well within the game’s mechanics, but they’re always ushered out for a second encounter with harder variables. The guys at ACE Team took strides to break up the action with some detours through some “defend this point” sequences, a rail-shooter boat ride, some basic hunting, and some arena type battles. Zeno Clash is paced well through its five hours, but it seemingly ran out of enough content to fill its fantastically developed world and starts to repeat stuff. Still, the ride remains glorious in spite of its repeated twists and turns.
The Live Arcade version of Zeno Clash, dubbed Ultimate Edition, features a few extra bells and whistles. Zeno Rush bundles a timer to certain choke points in the game and charges you with beating people up as fast as possible. Knocking fools out with the skull stick knocks a few seconds off the clock, but Zeno Rush is otherwise pretty cut and dry. Same goes for the Tower Challenges, which functions are a progressive survival mode through a tower. The Tower Challenge is now cooperatively playable (split screen or online), a feature not present in last year’s PC release. PR also states improved moves, new weapons, and “user interface improvement,” which, having never played Zeno Clash on PC, can’t verify, but still felt compelled to relay. Regardless, these additions extend what Zeno Clash has to offer, but don’t add very much.