Genre: First-Person Fighting/Shooter
Developer: Ace Team
Publisher: Iceberg Interactive
Release Date: 10/09/2009
It’s not every day that a game like Zeno Clash lands in my hands. It blends different genres, such as first-person shooting, fighting and action gaming, into a unique mix that I haven’t seen anywhere else before. Just by its cover and the accompanying poster, I can say that I was intrigued not only by what the game had to offer gameplay-wise, but also by the story, which promised to be strange and fascinating.
If there is one thing I have learned over the years, it’s that mixing genres does not always end up with sunshine and happiness. Some games seem to tack on RPG elements just for the fun of it, while more recently, Brutal Legend has received bits of criticism for its real-time strategy element. The question here is to know if Zeno Clash found a great formula by mixing different elements together, or if it flounders because of ambitions it could not attain.
Let’s find out!
The game takes place in a unique setting which the developers describe as “fantasy punk”. You play as Ghat, a member of a tribe that consists of the children of a hermaphrodite figure called Father-Mother. The game starts as Ghat regains consciousness after killing Father-Mother, effectively making all of his siblings angry. As he goes on the run with the help of a female companion called Deadra, he must constantly fight for his life against his brothers and sisters, assassins hired by his siblings and many other hostile creatures that populate the world of Zenozoik.
As you make your way through the game, you are also thrown into interactive flashbacks that explain, little by little, how Ghat came to kill Father-Mother. These flashbacks are played the same way as the present scenes, throwing more and more fights at you as you piece everything together.
The story is a bit slow to start. You are immediately thrown into combat against your siblings without really knowing why you are doing that. It takes a couple of fights and encounters before you start really knowing your character’s motives, and once you do, the game quickly become very engrossing and gripping. The story unfolds like a mystery, only with ass-kicking going on between each clue. The characters each have a very distinct personality that makes you care about their fate. The world of Zenozoik has a unique flavour that will leave you in awe.
Quite frankly, it has been a while since I have played a game with a narrative this original and captivating. I came in not expecting much except for fights against nameless baddies, but I ended up playing a game with a superb story connecting the different scenes together.
Story/Modes Rating: Incredible
Zeno Clash is both unique and beautiful. The 3D graphics, while not the best out there, are crisp and clean. The characters are extremely original and their designs are plentiful, even if some of them take the leap from “original” to “creepy” in the process. I’m saying that as a positive, by the way. That creepiness gives the game a great atmosphere, as if the world of Zenozoik was a real, breathing place populated by many different creatures. Not that it is a world I would want to live in, mind you, but I have to give props to Ace Team for coming up with so many interesting characters to populate their game with.
Speaking of the world of Zenozoik, I would have imagined a world like this one to be somber and brooding, but it manages to stay unnerving despite some episodes being set in daytime and one of them being sunnier than a day at the beach. The backgrounds are simply magnificent, from the forest to the desert and the city. When looking closely, some structures look blocky, but they blend in well with the surroundings to create an interesting universe.
Every little thing in Zeno Clash is bursting with personality. You are often attacked by half rat-half bird creatures. The desert is populated with giant brontosaurus-sized camels with an elephant’s trunk. The weapons are made from junk and body parts, such as skulls and bones. The developers really went all out in creating something that has never been seen before, and the result is very enjoyable.
Graphics Rating: Classic
The voice acting is OK, but not great. Ghat never really displays emotions when speaking, unlike his companion Deadra, who is much more pleasing to the ear. Some of the characters have grating voices that fit the characters, but still are annoying. During the tutorial, you are trained by a man who sounds like he has been singing too much death metal while chain smoking for years and has completely lost his voice as a result. It’s a very uneven mix, but the majority of the acting does the job.
The music is varied and fits the mood in each different setting. It seems like most of the games I review have forgettable soundtracks, but not this one. I found some of the pieces to be truly beautiful, if a bit dark, and really helpful in keeping you immersed all along.
The sound effects are competent, and each punch and kick sounds just as brutal as it should be. I want to qualify these as “skull-crushing” sound effects, and hope to be quoted as such in a future release of the game’s box art.
Sound Rating: Very Good
CONTROL AND GAMEPLAY:
The game looks and feels like a first-person shooter, but it is separated into chapters, with each including one or more fight. These fights are presented with their very own “VS” screen, with the game saving before each. In that regard, the game feels like a first-person version of traditional 2D fighting games such as Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat. There are action scenes thrown in between fights for variety, and to my surprise, they didn’t feel like they were tacked on just to advance the story while waiting for the next combat. Some of these will have you fending for yourself against hostile creatures in a forest, while another will have you searching for a contact in a tavern and even hunting rabbit-like things.
The first-person hand-to-hand combat is Zeno Clash‘s bread and butter. The controls can take a while to get a hang of, but the many tutorials peppered through the game at opportune moments greatly help to ease the learning curve. You control your character using the classic WASD scheme, with the mouse acting as your hands. A left-click is a weak punch, while a right click is a strong punch. You kick by looking down while punching. Blocking is done with the spacebar, which means that it is quite easy to block an attack and counter-punch immediately. It is also possible to side-step, and learning how to do so properly will greatly improve your chances of survival. Trust me when I say that this is not a game where spamming the punch button will win you most fights. You really need to learn the proper mechanics to deflect attacks and time your moves, but the results are very satisfying, as the system looks simple from the outside but feels pretty deep when you take the time to learn its subtleties.
Some of the smaller enemies can be killed by using guns and bombs that you will pick up along the way. These guns are made from junk, and thus weaker than what you would expect from a standard FPS, which means that they are more or less useless against human characters. Even the game’s version of a bazooka takes four hits or so to bring a human down. The shooting is done by aiming with the right-click and then shooting with the left-click. It works well when you have to fend off against the smaller, more annoying baddies, but your fists will be more efficient most of the time. The bombs are also pretty weak, but useful when things get crowded around you.
The game keeps things fresh by having some fights involve different patterns. Sometimes, you will meet oversized enemies that need to be brought down with melee weapons, such as clubs and sledgehammers. One of the bosses needs to be brought down while sniping at his explosive squirrels, for example. Zeno Clash is full of little details like these that manage to keep the game interesting all the way through. Some of the fights will get the best of you, but beating down your adversary is so satisfying that you will come back for more. More often than not, getting your own ass kicked can be offset by eating the small fruits lying around, which replenish your energy.
Overall, I would say that Zeno Clash is simple enough to stay fun, but complex enough to be challenging.
Control and Gameplay Rating: Great
The single-player mode is pretty much a one-shot deal, but the game includes a tower challenge that acts as a survival mode. This is where the game throws endless waves of enemies at you as you progress through the levels. You get rated in different categories depending on your performance, and you can then compare your rank against the world on the leader board. I found the game to be a great way to blow off some steam with some mindless ass-kicking, and the tower challenge is a great way to jump directly into the violence while challenging you to do better time after time. There is nothing to be unlocked here, but as with most arcade games, it’s the lure of a better rank that keeps you coming back.
Replayability Rating: Above Average
As mentioned above, there’s a nice little learning curve, but the tutorials are great and make the whole process very smooth. The challenge in the survival mode also increases as you go along, with more and more enemies coming more quickly and in greater number. If you could make your way through the main single-player mode, you will be able to jump into this mode without any real problem. The difficulty comes from the computer’s strength in numbers and from the exhaustion factor. As you keep going, it can become more difficult to keep track of where everybody is on the screen and maintaining concentration is a must.
The first-person perspective is somewhat of a challenge, but it is fun. Unlike a 2D fighter, which creates difficulty with different enemy patterns and by overwhelming you with waves of baddies, Zeno Clash almost recreates the true obstacles of a real fight; you can’t see behind your back, and you need to be aware of everybody’s movements. It’s a skill that the game gives you time to acquire, so as to make things easier in the beginning: in your first fight, you still face three opponents, but they each wait for their turn, like bad guys in a Steven Segal movie. Multiple enemies will eventually gang up on you as you go on.
There’s a good progression from start to finish, and every technique you learn along the way will be useful one way or another. You have to keep your ears and your eyes open, as nothing that you learn will be wasted.
Balance Rating: Great
From theme to visuals to gameplay, I have never seen or played anything like this. The gameplay mixes FPS elements with fighting game elements and action sequences. The characters and settings evoke vibes of traditional fantasy worlds and a little bit of steampunk, but everything is brought together in a fashion that is hard to describe and has to be experienced first-hand. Hell, I even got reminded of Existenz a little bit because of the organic weapon design.
I can try to compare Zeno Clash to things I have seen or played before all day, but nothing will quite give you an idea of what it really is. You really need to try this for yourself.
Originality Rating: Unparalleled
The single-player adventure was a bit slow to start, but once the elements get into place, the story sucks you in for a while. Destroying enemies becomes a drug after a while, as you continuously want to see what kind of odd creatures the game will throw at you. Unfortunately, that mode is a little bit short (around 4 or 5 hours), and after that, it’s all about the tower challenge. It’s always fun to come back for one more round of face-pummelling, as you can try for the high-score or just smash people for a while until you are tired.
Addictiveness Rating: Good
This is where the game might lose some points. Too much weirdness can turn off some people, and that’s a shame. This game has a vision, although a bizarre one, and it sticks with it until the end. At $14.99 on Steam, it’s a steal. Hopefully, the price combined with word of mouth will be enough to attract more people to this fantastic piece of work, but as it stands, this is an independent game with an unusual theme. This isn’t usually what we call a “wide appeal” title.
Appeal Factor Rating: Mediocre
The installation process was very smooth, and I played through the game without noticing a single bug. Good job, Ace Team!
After having played the tower challenge mode, I can’t help but think that an online VS mode could have been fun. I am also fearing that it could easily degenerate into mouse mashing because most players would probably just stop using the different techniques, but we’ll never know since, well, there is no online mode.
Finally, the entire atmosphere of the game, the mood that is set in each cutscene and with each new fight, needs to be commended. I heard rumours of a sequel being already in the works, and if the second game is in the same vein as this one, I could see the Zeno Clash universe becoming a very successful one. The instruction booklet includes a small comic that expands on a small section of the game, and it just shows how well this imaginative world can be exploited in many mediums. I just want to say congratulations to the development team for crafting something very special.
Miscellaneous Rating: Classic
Sound: Very Good
Replayability: Above Average
Final Score: Great Game!
Short Attention Span Summary:
This is without a doubt the most unique game I have played this year. Everything from the characters to the world to the gameplay is a breath of fresh air the likes of which I haven’t experienced in a couple of years. Yes, it’s short, but it’s also cheap, and it never overstays its welcome. This game is weird, but in a good way. It keeps throwing you off-balance with story twists and new fighting techniques to learn along the way, keeping what could have been a mindless punch fest from becoming stale. I heavily recommend this game to everybody. It just might be one of the year’s most satisfying titles.