Zeno Clash… How do I describe it? Let me put it this way… When I was a kid, some of my favorite movies were Dark Crystal, Legend, The Labyrinth, Neverending Story and etc.. The 80′s were a great era for strange fantasy films like that. They were full odd looking beasts, fantastic muppets, people with prosthetics all over their faces, off the wall characters and magical locations full mystery. Sometimes, I didn’t fully understand the plot, and I couldn’t really follow character motivations or grasp certain nuances. Still, I loved the strangeness of these worlds, and the fact they didn’t fully make sense to me. They didn’t have to – that was their charm. Zeno Clash is a little bit like that – like an old Henson movie, full of strangeness, mystery and unexplained things – only with a more mature, adult oriented theme.
And if you can’t relate to that, I will also say that it reminded me of some European graphic novels – especially stuff by Rosinski & Van Hamme duo. It’s a bizarre world, seeped in mystery and populated by individuals whose anatomy, background and motivations not always make sense. Let me give you an example: you play as Ghat, who seems human but claims to be one of many children of a strange hermaphrodite creature known as Father-Mother.
Father-Mother is very tall humanoid, with bird-like feet, a large nose that looks like a beak, yellow, glowing eyes, pasty pink flesh and a two-tone modulated voice that sounds both feminine and masculine at the same time. It always walks hunched over, carrying warping it’s children in the folds of it’s clothes and clutching them close to it’s chest. None of it’s children look even remotely like him.
Half of the characters in the game are like that – strange, monstrous and/or deformed things seem to be the hallmark of this game. The world is populated by feathered, beaked bird-like creatures, deformed humans, oddly shaped gnome things, wolf men, scaly reptilians, boar men, elephant men, strange crystalline zombies, enormous naked giraffe like animals with trunks and etc. Its almost as of no two creatures in the game were the same species. And yet no one questions it. This diversity is treated like a fact of life and no one actually even notices it. Each location in the game is a little bit like a Mos Eisley Cantina – full of bizarre and wondrous things.
The game is based on Source engine, which gives all these characters a wide range of movement and facial articulation. Even the non-essential background spectators usually have some scripted motions. As you approach them they will usually glare at you, say something, fall over or go about their business.
The levels are designed in similar vein – they are odd, quirky, colorful and full of detail. In fact I kept trying to pick up and press on the objects I found on my way thinking they might be interactive. Most other games do not put this much emphasis on non-essential and ultimately unimportant background features. It is a bit of a waste that you can never truly interact with the colorful backdrops – I’d love to be able to open all these chests, pull the levers, press the buttons and etc… Still, you quickly learn that the only interactive objects in the game other than weapons (which have a visible glow) are the health restoring fruits that also stand out from the background due to their color. Everything else is just decoration. Usually a very well done, intriguing and visually pleasing decoration, but decoration nevertheless.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that the art direction in this game is positively sick. And when I say sick, I mean it in a good way – trippy, intriguing, colorful, creative and very original. I’m usually the last person to talk at length about video game visuals. I’m not easily impressed by pretty graphics and flashy effects. I could care less about vertex shaders, photo realistic water reflections and etc. What impresses me is originality – and that’s one of the things the game has in abundance.
But let’s start from the beginning. What kind of a game is Zeno Clash? Well… It’s an FPS…. Sort of….
It’s actually a bit difficult to classify. For an FPS there is surprisingly little shooting in it. The weapons are clunky, reload very slowly and deal out very little damage. Most of the time, shooting will be either very ineffective or a complete waste of time. Unless of course your enemy is hiding in some unreachable location and you need to use the weapons to hit them. Most of the time however, the most powerful weapons in the game are your fists. Yep, Zeno Clash is a first person beat them up. Mechanically it is very similar to classic side scrolling arcade fist fighting games. The levels are linear paths that usually take you from one enclosed fighting area to the other. It’s a little bit like Condemned, with bit less freedom and exploration, but more intense combat. Not to mention a bright, colorful, twisted world instead of dark, dirty and gloomy streets, abandoned buildings and train stations.
The fighting itself is rather fun. LMB is used for quick jabs that can be chained into 2-3 punch flurries. RMB is a slow, power punch that has a significant wind-up delay. Space is used for blocking, and dodging (when combined with side to side movement). You can also do counter attacks from behind a block, kick opponents on the ground (just run up, and hit a punch button), grab them when they are stunned (by walking into them) and knee them in the face, or deliver a devastating uppercut that will send them flying. It’s easy, quick and intuitive.
Challenging part is fighting multiple opponents. The FPS perspective means that you have huge blind spots on both sides of you and you can be easily flanked. The AI in the game will actually try to do that all the time. In some games the enemies will just crowd in front of you and try to stay in your field of view as much as possible. For example, I rarely had problems with people flanking me in Oblivion. Zeno Clash AI seems to be more pragmatic. As soon as your enemy realizes he is losing, he will try to disengage, then run around and try to get you from the side or get behind you. If there are weapons lying around, the characters will pick them up and try engaging you at a distance. Nice touch is that they will never shoot if you are close to one of their friends. In fact, when a character is about to shoot, he will usually yell at his friends to get out of the way (and they usually do). This makes for rather dynamic and interesting combat. A lot of stuff is going on, and you have to constantly move around to prevent from being flanked or surrounded. Usually you want to maneuver around so that all the enemies are in front of you and you can use the closest guy as a meat shield. Sometimes you can hurl your opponent hurl him into a group of his buddies knocking them all over, and allowing you to run up and kick them in the teeth as they are trying to get up. Fun stuff!
Every once in a while you will encounter special characters that can only be wounded with slow swinging melee weapons, only vulnerable to projectile weapons or requiring special sequence of actions to happen in order to receive damage (ie. shoot them in the legs so that they fall over, then punch them in the face as they kneel down.).
The game is fun, it looks pretty but the best part is definitely the story. It’s soaked in weirdness and mystery. At the beginning of the game, your character (Ghat) turns on Father-Mother for some reason and kills him (her?). As a result he is forced flee from his home town of Halstedom pursued by his brothers and sisters. He is accompanied by Deadra who is essentially an Alyx type character with horns. She helps Ghat with advice, sometimes shoots his opponents from a distance, opens plot driven doors and etc. Why does she follow Ghat? Why is she willing to put herself in danger for him? Is it love? Or does she have some other agenda?
The grand escape takes this heroic duo almost to the end of the world. They visit a forest inhabited by single minded and deliciously insane Corwids who probably deserve their own post. I mean, how cool is it to fight a guy who routinely removes eyes from every living creature he encounters because he doesn’t want to be seen? Corwids are a trip, let me tell you! I will come back to them later though.
The game also features a desert level with humongous elephant-giraffe type monsters, dark tombs full of zombie like stone/crystaline beings, deadly fog, sand worms, a fight that takes place near a giant beached whale thing and of course the demented Corwids. All these locations are unique and twisted and incredibly fun to explore. Even if you get bored with the fighting, you will want to keep going to see the next level, and get the next dialog sequence that reveals a bit more information about this strange world.
The ending is a bit of a cop out. The big reveal at the end is actually something you probably could have figured on your own, while bigger mysteries linger unanswered. The length of the game also leaves a bit to be desired. There are probably only 6 or 7 hours of actual game play. I stretched it across 5 evenings but that’s probably because I was having fun and trying to find imaginative ways of defeating some of the bosses. Due to the strong narrative structure, and linearity there is little or no incentive to go back and replay the game once you are done with it. There is a timed survival mode which can be played for high scores and Steam achievements which probably considerably extends the play time. But I personally don’t care about that stuff. Without the unique setting and the story to drive the plot forward, Zeno Clash becomes tedious and repetitive.
Believe it or not, I actually didn’t mind that the game was short. I’m not sure if it could even support more content without adding new features and making combat more varied. I mean there are only so many things you can do with just your fists and 5 or 6 weapons. As I mentioned before, Zeno Clash starts recycling opponents, and combat scenarios in the last 2-3 chapters. This is probably by design and is justified by the plot, but it still feels repetitive in some places. I suspect that the current formula works well due to the games’ brevity. If more chapters were added, the game could become even more repetitive to a point where it would become too tedious for me to bother.
It is worth mentioning that Zeno Clash was developed by Ace Team – an indie group based in Chile. If you wondered about the odd accents and strange rhythm of most of the dialogs, that’s probably the reasons. The voice work was actually done in house by the development team. Some people find their work a bit jarring. Personally though, I thought that the slightly off-key voice acting only added yet another layer of other-worldly feel to the game. You may see a sub-par voice work, I see added value.
Last time I checked the game was only $14 on Steam which is an absolute steal. It’s actually a perfect price for a product this length. I highly recommended buying it just to support the Ace Team. Why? Because they are one of the very few development groups that actually understand the dynamics of file sharing. It is refreshing to see game design studio viewing P2P as free promotion tool rather than a threat. These days all the major game publishers are trying to remotely take over their client’s computer with invasive rootkits. Anyone who doesn’t do that deserves our respect – especially when they produce such trippy and fun games like Zeno Clash. I wish more game development houses were like that.