Weird. That’s what popped into my head the first time I got a look at Zeno Clash, and I was strangely drawn to the game because of it. Of course, weird isn’t necessarily bad. Far from it, in fact, especially in the increasingly bland video game landscape where something like Master Chief is popular enough to get a spot in the wax museum. So when Atlus asked me to review Zeno Clash Ultimate Edition for Xbox Live Arcade, I wholeheartedly accepted. Here was an apparent match made in heaven: Atlus, a publisher known for its eclectic RPGs and bizarre stories was distributing ACE Team’s uniquely strange concept game. It also gave me a chance to dive into Zeno Clash after missing its initial release over Steam.
Zeno Clash has an interesting history. It started out as a genre-spanning RPG called Zenozoik, which had a little bit of everything—fighting, FPS, character building and world exploration. ACE Team eventually realized it was too ambitious for their first standalone game and decided to focus on one aspect: the fighting. The result is a game that is almost unrivaled in genre and art style, but whether you get sucked into it really depends on how compelling you find its distilled, highly focused main elements.
Chronicles of Riddick was the first game to really do the first-person-brawler justice, but in Zeno Clash this style of gameplay is the main idea. Everything revolves around quick and strong attacks, blocking, parrying, switching targets and basically being an opportunistic fighter. The controls work much like a standard FPS but borrow the lock-on mechanics, blocking and simple button combos from fighting games.
It’s a remarkably functional synthesis of two highly different genres, which makes it easy to get into the groove of the combat. You also have some good core FPS elements as well, but which skews toward the realistic side of things by severely limiting movement while you’re aiming. It’s a really solid mix of play styles, and if you can accept the fact that this is basically a fighting game in first person with some precision gunplay thrown in for good measure, you’ll find a compelling brawler that’s very hard to put down.
And…that’s all I really have to say about the gameplay. To be honest Zeno Clash isn’t a terribly elaborate experience, and sticks with mostly a single gameplay style that works really well. It’s clear that ACE Team had a lot more planned for the world of Zenozoik but pared it all down into a core introductory experience, so that they could get their new world across to gamers in a simple, easy to pick up package. And man, what a world it is. Zeno Clash is an almost indescribably strange game.
You play as Ghat, a wiry, tattooed man with a dreamy, childlike perspective on life. He lives in the fantasy world of Zenozoik, a world completely disconnected from our own and wonderfully, sometimes frighteningly odd. Ghat has gotten himself into a bit of trouble by assassinating Father-Mother, an apparently hermaphroditic bird-like creature that cares for a large and equally bizarre family, which it raised in the village of Halstedom. Ghat begins the game by escaping the village with his female companion Deadra, both of them on the run from his vengeance-minded brothers and sisters.It turns out that Ghat’s disagreement with Father-Mother started when he visited the Corwid of the Free, a fringe group of seemingly insane nature dwellers. The Corwid are all quite random, each one doing whatever they please all the time, be it walking in a straight line forever, gouging out everyone else’s eyes to make oneself “invisible,” or even eating one’s fellow Corwids. Ghat describes his experiences to Deadra and they play out like flashbacks in the game. Ghat’s perspective on this wide range of sometimes horrifying behavior is refreshingly relativistic—these Corwids do these things simply because it is what they do. The hulking Gaben has decided he must eat people, and Ghat decides he does not want to be eaten and therefore fights back. It all has a sense of natural order to it; no right or wrong, what happens is just what happens. Most importantly, Ghat learned to think for himself when training with his fighting teacher Metamoq (presented as tutorials in flashback hallucinations), and also learned a disturbing secret about Father-Mother.
The story plays out like one of those creepy-yet-compelling Jim Henson movies from the 80s, like Labyrinth or Dark Crystal but darker in tone. It’s a work of eclectic sci-fi or speculative fiction, wrought in vibrant and distinctly alien tones that really must be experienced firsthand. The music, art style, and breathtaking environments are very hard to describe—they’re reminiscent of abstract paintings, mixing nature and technology in combinations that don’t quite reach Giger-esque levels of grotesque but are no less unsettling. You’ll fight creatures that seem like they came from a fantasy novel, while others are just plain disturbing. You’ll roam orange sunset-bathed plains, hunting alien rabbits in the shadow of massive elephant-giraffe-like creatures. You’ll travel to the end of the world, set metal ghosts on fire and resurrect an ancient sage who carries a Rubix cube.
I quickly found myself wishing that ACE Team had pushed the scope of the gameplay past simple brawling and into the expansive realm of an RPG. The world they’ve built certainly deserves a bigger canvas. I can understand where they were coming from, keeping the first taste of Zenozoik straightforward, but now I really
want a sequel that explores the world in more detail. In any case it’s very difficult to discuss Zeno Clash just on its gameplay, because half of its impact comes from the world it inhabits.
Zeno Clash definitely isn’t for everyone. I’m amazed the game got green-lit at all, much less ported to the 360; I’ll have to send Atlus some extra holiday cards this year. A lot of people will probably find Zeno Clash too strange and some of the people who actually like the art direction might not get into the fighting. Still, if you’re in for something different, Zeno Clash is about as different as you can get these days. If you can accept the weird world of Zenozoik, you’re in for an experience unlike anything else on the market.