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.
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