I really enjoyed
the first Zeno Clash when it came out a couple years ago, because it was completely unlike anything else on the market at the time. Zeno Clash is a first-person brawler, set in a world that was as jaw-droppingly beautiful as it was strange, with a story based on abstractions, the search for personal truth and ultimately discovering and defining what’s right and wrong in a society of moral relativity. It couldn’t have been a more risky proposition if its developer, ACE Team, wanted it to be. While the gameplay was comparatively simple it was obvious that Zeno Clash was a proof of concept, a canary down the mineshaft to see if gamers would react positively to such a singularly odd game.
It was always clear that ACE Team had a much bigger world mapped out and much deeper gameplay planned. Now that the original Zeno Clash has amassed a strong cult following and now that the novelty of Zenozoik has been tapped in the first game, can ACE Team make a sequel the stands on its own merits? It turns out they most certainly can, by making the rabbit hole a heck of a lot deeper and weirder the farther down you go.
Zeno Clash 2 picks up a few months after the first one ended. Ghat has defeated his deceitful, baby-thieving surrogate parent Father-Mother, by traveling to the end of the world and bringing the mysterious Golem back with him. Ghat is having some second thoughts, however. Golem introduces concepts like crime, punishment and jail to the simple denizens of Ghat’s village, Halstedom. Golem wasted no time in locking up Father-Mother, and as a result most of Ghat’s adopted siblings left the village to seek out their real parents.
Ghat and his sarcastic sister Rimat seem to be the only villagers who still value Father-Mother as their parent, and as a result they haven’t fled to find the birth parents that Father-Mother took them from. Ghat and Rimat determine to spring Father-Mother, but there’s a catch—to prevent rebellion, Golem has telepathically linked all the citizens of Halstedom directly to him, so anything they do to hurt Golem hurts everyone else too. Ghat and his sister succeed in breaking Father-Mother out of Golem’s prison, but must escape in exile to find a way to free Halstedom from Golem’s heavy-handed, well-intentioned dictatorship.
As expected the story is pretty heavy stuff, but like the first game it is told in the simple brushstrokes of Ghat’s childlike perspective. I don’t want to spoil anything, but the sequel does get more particular and specific with the story than the first game, which is really a necessity as the sequel expands on and resolves many of the threads and abstractions left at the end of Zeno Clash. It’s rare to find a sequel where the writers actually have a plan, and aren’t just going bigger and louder than the previous story, but Zeno Clash 2 does a decent job of explaining a lot of the weirdness of the original, in at least a partially satisfying way.
Of course the game has “clash” in its title, so you can expect a lot more of the first person brawling that set the first game apart from the FPS pack. As you’d imagine the sequel dramatically expands the list of moves and combos; the tutorial is pretty thorough and exacting, and might frustrate people who want to just jump into the campaign and start beating people up. That said, there’s a lot of rewarding complexity here if you want to challenge some of the harder difficulty modes. Zeno Clash 2 is essentially the realization of a first person fighting game, where button mashing might get you to the end of the game, but skillful playing will yield a far more rewarding experience. I dare say that if they put the work into adapting it properly, ACE Team might make this the first game that gives Kinect a reason for existing.
The combat gameplay isn’t the only thing that’s been expanded. While the original game was strictly linear and level based, ACE Team has made Zenozoik completely open world in the sequel, and Halstedom is just a tiny part of that world. This really opens up the ability to explore this mind-bending alien environment, to venture to exotic lands that were previously only glimpsed behind invisible walls. To be honest, it’s a little disappointing that not every environment weird or beautiful or even interactive in Zeno Clash 2. Some places are covered in muddy textures, others are just rather generic, but that makes the truly odd and spectacular areas stand out even more.
The best environments are filled with the abstract, Dali-esque modern art that ACE Team experimented with in Rock of Ages. It’s not uncommon to find yourself in lands that have giant hands squeezing balloons sticking out of the sides of mountains, or distant planetary vistas hanging over fields filled with giant dandelions. Some of the more hidden areas get so artistically bonkers that I was having Bioshock Infinite flashbacks. Each area is inhabited by citizens and more importantly enemies that mirror the general “anything goes” aesthetic. You’ll be trading blows with giant bird people, befriending lumpy men with metal pots built into their skin, and collecting colorful butterflies for a small egg-shaped creature that has a painter’s pallete for a lower jaw.
To keep Zenozoik from getting too random and uncontrolled, ACE Team has implemented some standard progression and RPG mechanics. As Ghat you can now seek out hidden totems that grant XP points, allowing you to level up Ghat’s health, stamina, damage potential and most importantly, his charisma in gaining allies. You can now recruit many of the characters you meet (and defeat in combat) and the more leadership points Ghat has, the better allies you can recruit. This can factor into the story as well, as you are often prompted to trade out a previous ally with the latest side character you meet during the plot. Having strong allies who fight well, or any allies at all, can be the difference between a very tough fight and a manageable one, especially on the harder difficulties. Sadly, however, your allies rarely do more than distract a few opponents as they go mano-a-mano, and ally battle AI is pretty limited.
Ghat can also equip some new tools and weapons. While the skull grenades return from the first game, you can also use a simple chain whip to ward off multiple foes in front of you, and eventually you even gain some of Golem’s arcane gear. The sun-moon gauntlet, obtained early in the game, allows Ghat to call down a mystical airstrike that harms any enemies in its way, and also breaks down the barriers the Golem has erected to prevent Ghat from progressing. The only catch is that you must aim the gauntlet directly at the sun or moon to charge it. The Golem Glove gives you Golem’s power to link objects, which becomes crucial to solving certain puzzles, but also lets you telepathically bind enemies so that damage you inflict on one hurts the other as well.
These weapons enhance the combat and puzzles and most of all keep the brawling interesting, which is good because you’ll be doing a lot of fighting. An old development maxim goes that if you’re doing the same thing over and over again it had better be fun, and ACE Team apparently understands that. While certain aspects of Zeno Clash 2 don’t quite live up to its lofty scope and ambitions, it’s still a much bigger game than the original and it’s admirable that ACE Team could keep the whole thing from falling apart under its own weight. This is an evolutionary step for the franchise, not a paradigm shift, and ACE Team is making a big push with the game to explore the IP. Many things feel the same but grander, like the sound design.
Early on in the game your ears are greeted with the same synth-heavy tribal beats and melodies, evoking the stonepunk flavor that permeates the Zeno Clash aesthetic. However once you venture out into the bigger areas, Zeno Clash 2’s music matches the expanding scale, growing richer and fuller while remaining just as delightfully strange. On numerous occasions I found myself gaping at a particularly head-opening horizon or field stretching out before me, but without that driving plunky music the view wouldn’t have been as powerful.
I’ve seen a lot of people complaining about the game’s voice acting, calling it stilted, wooden and amateur. I don’t really think this is fair because Zeno Clash 2 is not your typical story so the same inflection and tone you’d expect in more grounded stories just doesn’t apply. Ghat and his siblings are basically adult children raised by a hermaphroditic bird-creature in a world ostensibly crafted by Hieronymus Bosch. That they all sound a bit confused, simple and dreamy makes perfect sense to me, and with the weirder characters looking like they’ve been ripped straight out of an 80s Henson movie, it’s appropriate that they speak like they’re in the middle of Labyrinth. The only thing missing is a rousing rendition of David Bowie’s “Dance Magic.”
Zeno Clash 2 might not fall together as cleanly as most people would like, but I value it just as I valued the first game: for trying something truly different in a market full of so much bland homogeneity. Publishers are so terrified of taking risks that they miss out on the genuinely odd and new, things that look scary and confusing simply by existing. That hesitance and paranoia keeps games like Zeno Clash 2 from the niche, cult audiences that can really appreciate them, so I applaud ACE Team for sticking to their guns and growing a property that is still so raw and promising. For a mere $20 you can immerse yourself in an even grander, headier and stranger Zenozoik. I personally feel that’s a much better use of $20 than a handful of new multiplayer maps, a few new novelty FPS guns or some miscellaneous character skins.