The advantage independent developers’ hold over the big-studio big-budget developers is the ability to take giant risks while putting a lot less on the line. There is also the luxury of not having one of the big brother publishers looming over your shoulder as you work pushing your vision into the mainstream. If there is one thing that Zeno Clash is not, it’s mainstream. If I had to describe what Zeno Clash is in one sentence it would be as follows: Zeno Clash is wild and intense melee brawlfest that looks to be inspired by the secret love child of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth and Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, often feeling like a strange drug induced dream. I mean that in the best way possible.
The story of Zeno Clash takes place in the quasi-tribal world of Halstedom where you experience the story though the eyes of Ghat, the main ass kicker. The story starts with Ghat being run out of his home town for killing Father Mother who is the matriarch of the town. After a brief stint with a mystery sensei in a comma induced dream you’re immediately dumped into your first brawl. Once you defeat your two pursuers you and your female friend Deadra flee to the forest where the Corwid of the Free live and thus the story begins. Through out the game Ghat explains things to Deadra through the use of flashbacks. It’s much like Lost where you’re in the present but constantly get dragged back in time via the flashback vehicle. As you play you’ll be slowly uncovering the events that led up to you killing Father Mother.
While the story of Zeno Clash is surprisingly easy to follow, it’s fairly strange. In fact everything is strange in this game. The only people that resemble normalcy are Ghat and Deadra. The rest of the characters are equally as strange as the story and the environments they live in. You’ll routinely encounter creatures that are humanoid animal hybrids, twisted S&M looking torturers and large naked pig men.
When it comes down to combat Zeno Clash shines in the hand to hand fighting. The whole game really centers around this. The way it works is pretty simple, you target a person and go to town punching away. You’ll do a three punch maneuver as a standard attack. You can also grab your enemy and either use a face smashing uppercut or a face smashing triple knee to the face attack. You can block and dodge attacks as well and as you advance you’ll be able to use dodge to knock enemies off balance and land some heavy hitting attacks. You are able to kick people while they’re down and actually this is a maneuver that is easily exploitable for easy wins over single target enemies. You can’t really get away with using it on most of the fights when it’s three vs one.
There are few weapons in the game including two handed melee weapons that are required to defeat some mini bosses. Using the two handed weapons is extremely frustrating as they are slow and susceptible to being blocked. This is a problem because you have to use them to defeat the larger enemies and be extremely frustrating to do successfully. Guns are generally pointless here, even the dual fish guns, they almost seem out of place. With the exception of certain fights that required guns to be used, I found them to be more of a nuisance to use than just running up and punting creatures or beating the living crap out of them. The hand to hand fighting is leaps and bounds more interesting than any of the weapons.
What stands out to me most about Zeno Clash is the art direction of it. As I mentioned at the beginning of this review it’s visually like a twisted hybrid of Labyrinth and Pan’s Labyrinth. There were often times I half expected a demented David Bowie character to leap out and throw crystal balls at me. There are even some hints of Tim Burton-esque characters like the bartender you meet mid way through the game. The character designs are sometimes disturbing and the worlds are filled with colorful lush/trippy environments. Some of the creatures there are of epic magnificence that are best discovered by yourself. The game has a distinct tone of mental wonder, assaulting your mind as well as your eyes. It is a visual stimulus overload all the while binding your mind in an attempt to follow the disturbing story developments.
Zeno Clash is one of those games that you’re either going to love, or loath. The gameplay alone isn’t enough to force players into liking the demented universe in which it takes place. The hand to hand aspects of the combat is fun but introducing weapons causes it to be painful and frustrating. If you like games that have a mysterious narrative with visuals that are somewhat twisted and disturbing, then this game is for you. If you’re more interested in the gameplay and turned off by off-beat storylines and visuals then you might want to skip on by this one.
The bottom line is that Zeno Clash is probably worth the $20 you’ll pay for it on Steam. There are some problems with the combat with specific regards to the weapons, but for the most part the hand to hand combat is fun and satisfying. The story is solid and if you stick it out through the 18 chapters you’ll discover a curve ball at the end, not to mention the mysterious use of a common hand held puzzle game. While it’s not a perfect game, Zeno Clash is a nice off the beat and path gem for players looking for something truly unique and different.
+ Great story with a nice twist
+ Amazingly disturbing visuals
+ Fun beat-em-up hand to hand combat
– Melee weapons are frustrating to use
– Guns seems almost pointless
– Maybe too strange for some players