It's always dangerous for developers to embrace the weird because it's so completely different that it can alienate people. Yet, every now and then weirdness can pay off admirably. Zeno Clash, an independent first-person action game from Chilean developer ACE Team, is an example of the latter. This is a game that has a bizarre plot that feels like some sort of fever dream, but thanks to smart design and storytelling, it feels refreshingly original and completely compelling.
Though it features first-person shooting and is built on Valve's Source engine (the same one that powers Half-Life 2 and Left 4 Dead), Zeno Clash is better described as a first-person action game. Much of the action revolves around first-person brawling rather than shooting, where it's all about timing punches, landing jabs and haymakers, kicking, and dodging. This may bring back not-so-wonderful memories of another Source-based game built around first-person melee combat (Dark Messiah of Might and Magic), yet the battles in Zeno Clash is deeply satisfying, even if you feel like you're just mashing the controls at times.
Trying to explain the story though is difficult. The protagonist is a young man named Ghat who seeks exile from his family after killing his Father-Mother, a tall, vulture-like hermaphrodite that spawns human and animal humanoid children. Ghat is accompanied by a female companion as they flee into a wilderness that gets stranger the further they travel. There are insane occupants of a forest, followed by a psycho mercenary riding atop giant dinosaur creatures in a desert, all the way to a strange fortress in a misty swamp filled with shadow creatures and a masked figure named Golem. Upon reaching Golem, the two decide that they must go back from whence they came to confront the situation, and throughout all of this are flashblacks that explain Ghat's story leading up to the killing of Father-Mother. Reading this, you might think the story sounds pretty cut-and-dry, but you have to piece it together through cryptic dialogue and strange cutscenes. Yet to its credit, ACE Team remains dedicated to its vision and the story; while the universe of Zeno Team is weird, it starts to make sense after a while.
If there's a weakness to the game's combat, it's that some of the more finesse moves (like timing a block to deflect an opponent's attack at the perfect moment, then following up immediately with a counter-attack) are a bit too difficult with the control scheme, especially when it's easier and simpler to simply pound your opponent with punches. That being said, it's incredibly satisfying to pummel someone, or bash your knee in their face, or hurl them aside like a rag doll. This is essentially a virtual Fight Club.
Another issue is that due to the boomerang nature of the story, you face the same foes over and over and over again. (One of your sisters, in particular, sticks out due to her mane of thick, black hair.) Familiarity breeds a bit of contempt in this case, and as a result, the only way the game really increases difficulty as you progress is to have you face off against them in larger groups. At the beginning of the game, it's one-on-one, but by the end of the game, you might have to take four or five on one at the same time. It's even more difficult with some of the bigger "boss" type enemies; they require you pummel them with heavy objects, and near the end of the game you have to tackle two of them at once. The final battle almost feels unfair as it stacks the odds against you that much.
At the same time, some smart design mitigates some of these issues. Zeno Clash features a lot of levels, but many of them are rather brief. So instead of having you grind through massive levels, beating up foe after foe after foe before hitting a boss, each level gets to the crux quickly. It's nice because that gives the game a great pace, and it allows it to change things up, especially some sequences that don't work so well, such as a rails sequence on a boat. It's very much a case of less is more. That also means the game isn't particularly long (you could get through it about four hours), but it doesn't overstay its welcome, either. There is no multiplayer to extend the experience, but there is literally a challenge mode that requires you to battle your way up levels of a tower, and you can post your scores against others.
Another reason that Zeno Clash works is the fantastic look of the game, which goes to show that art design is as important as programming prowess when it comes to creating distinctive visuals. It's like nothing else out there, from the candy-colored palette to the dreamlike environments. There's stuff here that sticks in your head as well, like a giant, beached, sawtooth whale to the characters, some of which look like exiles from Tim Burton's dreams. The voice acting is surprisingly good, though a bit stilted. That may be due to possible translation issues.
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