Players: 1+ Player Game | Release Date: 05/05/10 | Genre: FPS
The highest compliment one could give indie hit Zeno Clash would be that it’s unlike anything we see in big budget game development today. Chilean developer ACE Team has crafted a unique story, style and gameplay mechanic the marketing department would never approve of because the guys in research say we all want more steroidal space marines. The game, previously released on Valve’s Steam network, isn’t perfect by any means, but its effort to create something original almost makes up for any faults.
Just a quick warning: Zeno Clash is really weird. However, its style is remarkably fresh. The game takes place in a fantasy land called Zenozoik. The main character is Ghat, one of the many children born from Father-Mother, a mysterious hermaphrodite creature who looks part human and part ostridge.
For some reason Ghat tries to kill his cross-gendered parent, and is chased out of town by his siblings. The rest of the story is split between Ghat’s journey back to his home city to confront Father-Mother, and the events that lead up to his attempt at killing him/her in the first place. There’s a lot of subtle teasing throughout the plot and the anticipation leads to quite an interesting twist, which is more than one can say about most video game stories.
The world of Zeno Clash is a sort of Neanderthal setting combined with unearthly and sometimes unnerving characteristics. The citizens of Zenozoik are a mix of half human and half animal beings with hostile personalities and grotesque figures. Think of it as a version of the Flintstones that would give kids nightmares.
A good variety of landscapes are provided, ranging from deserts and forests to ancient temples and sophisticated cities. Zeno Clash’s world oozes with style, and is loaded with designs both beautiful and disturbing. The game runs on Valve’s Source engine and it’s obvious from looking at the graphics, which carry a faint hint of Half Life 2.
Zeno Clash’s gameplay is another thing we don’t often see: first-person fighting. The controls are simple, allowing the player to unleash the standard light and heavy attacks, as well as blocks and counter moves. The dodging manoeuvre takes the game into slow motion whenever an attack is averted, and rewards the player with a devastating return blow. Users can try to pummel enemies but will eventually have to back away to recharge their stamina bar. The actual fighting mechanic feels kinetic, and doesn’t allow players (or enemies) to spam attacks or hide behind the block move.
While he may be a skilled bare knuckle brawler, Ghat can pick up a few weapons too. He can use clubs to take down larger boss characters or carry ranged weapons. The arsenal consists of Stone Age equivalents to rifles, pistols and grenades – all made out of natural items like bones or fish heads.
The weapons are weak, so they won’t make the core fighting system obsolete. If you throw down your weapons to change to fists watch out, because enemies will know to pick them up. They’re a smart bunch; the only problem is when they get into a group.
Zeno Clash’s fighting is designed for one on one combat, as is evident from the lock on function which puts the focus on a single adversary. Unfortunately, when a number of baddies surround Ghat, Zeno Clash’s fighting system breaks down. When locked onto an enemy it’s impossible to see others coming in for the attack, and getting out of the lock on is an uncomfortable task. Even the game recommends running away from areas with multiple foes, as if it’s given up on the issue too. It all makes Zeno Clash’s otherwise fluid fighting system feel clunky.
The other issue lies with the game’s level design. All of the 19 stages take place in mostly small, secluded arenas. Enemies will come out for a fight and once they’re defeated it’s onto the next tiny venue. The game can get a bit repetitive, and the boss battles get recycled multiple times, including the final encounter.
After the single player there’s a couple of challenge modes available. Zeno Rush is merely a timed jaunt through campaign levels; however the co-op powered Tower Challenge is a bit more interesting. The tower levels feature arenas with different combat scenarios not found in the campaign like battling multiple hulking bosses who hurl boulders. The pit challenge tasks players with working their way down a labyrinth as they break through stone floors, all while fighting enemies and trying not to fall to their death.
Playing Zeno Clash cooperatively works pretty well for two reasons. First, having a buddy watching your back helps cut down on the issue of getting surrounded by enemies. Second, each player can take different roles like using ranged weapons or fighting melee. The issue with the challenge levels is how few of them there are, so the difficulty never ramps up. After a while the modes feel like a bonus addition to the main campaign, rather than an integral part of the game.
With its unconventional style and gameplay, Zeno Clash will undoubtedly be a game people either love or hate. As appealing as the fighting and artistic style can be, the lock on issues and redundant level design might push others away from this premium priced XBLA game. Regardless of its problems, Zeno Clash is a game everyone should at least try. It’s a promising example of the fresh content being made by independent developers, and a satisfying antithesis to the generic storytelling most of the game industry continues to pump.