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Zeno Clash (PC) artwork

Zeno Clash (PC) review

"In a lot of ways, it feels like an evolved Double Dragon comfortably shoehorned into the first perspective then bottle fed LSD by the gallon."

Zeno Clash is, above anything else, gloriously weird. It takes elements from tribal fantasy, steam punk and utter randomness to create a hallucinogenic patchwork quilt of such surreal bizarreness that you can’t help but be drawn into it just to see what could possibly happen next. The manual contains a comic depicting a blind hunter shooting rat-squirrels with TNT barrels strapped to their backs, while the intro concerns itself with the fractured account of the main character‘s exile from his clan. Ghat is son to one of Zenozoik’s most revered tribes, but he gets in an argument with the clan leader. This guy:

Meet Mother-Father, a huge hermaphrodite hybrid that spits out human kids at an alarming rate. These children are considered to have elite standings amongst the tribes, but Ghat’s broken recollection shows only an argument between he and his parent, and a fatal blow being struck by the protagonist. Exile follows, interrupted only by a brief, hazy hallucination that subtly explains the game’s melee combat by listening to the whispers of an otherworldly shaman and kicking phantom chickens. The forbidden desert beckons; a long, treacherous travel to the edge of the world is promised. He’s only got a country full of deviant hostiles to worry about, and the wrath of his entire clan on his back. His only comfort is his frizzy-hair travelling companion, Deadra.

Atypical is very much a word that runs though Zeno Clash; though the entire game is viewed through a first person perspective, battles are more often than not played out in a surprisingly tight melee fashion. Mouse clicking can lead to combination punches, but you can also effortlessly grab heads and slam knees into faces, or deliver clumsy haymakers. In a lot of ways, it feels like an evolved Double Dragon comfortably shoehorned into the first perspective then bottle fed LSD by the gallon. Some of the game feels like it’s just a loose collection of fights against oddities like a humanoid Elephant that really doesn’t like you and a hulking gorilla-vulture, but, even here, you marinate in the unique atmosphere. You learn about the macabre -- you meet someone who’s obsessed with being invisible and believes he can achieve this by tearing out the eyes of everyone he meets. You learn about the touching -- hearing a tale of a girl who gave up on life and just curled up and died then, later, passing her body. You find moments of striking beauty and staggering sobriety hidden away behind the constant fighting and weirdness, something the game needed to avoid stagnating.

Which makes it all the harder to swallow when the game does start to harshly repeat itself with revisited locations, familiar character sets and battles against groups of people the melee engine struggles to grant you enough freedom to partake in smoothly. The travel through the desert is memorable, the trek through a woods filled with oddball psychopaths unforgettable, but by the time you’re about two-thirds through the game, the creeping stagnation finally seems to set in. There’s still moments of grandeur to be found, like the on-the-rails boat trip lighted by a flickering torch, but the game limps rather than strides towards the finale. Because of this, endgame disappoints, not offering up satisfactory closure and vying only with Halo 2 in conclusions that feel less like a rewarding prize and more like one of the game’s super-powered leaping punches to the face.

There’s a challenge mode to be found that lets you revel in the fight engine the way it should be experienced, but the demulsifying effect of the ending on the rest of the game leaves a lasting scar. It’s unclear if Ace Team were out of ideas or already looking towards the confirmed sequel, but the wonderful surreal world takes a kicking. Much like Ghat is forced to do again and again, though, it still manages to clamber back to its feet and find a new way to surprise you.


EmP's avatar
Staff review by Gary Hartley (October 20, 2009)

Gary Hartley arbitrarily arrives, leaves a review for a game no one has heard of, then retreats to his 17th century castle in rural England to feed whatever lives in the moat and complain about you.

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zippdementia posted October 20, 2009:

this is a really good review. You let the game speak for itself by presenting its situation and characters and just telling us what we need to know in terms of gameplay. I got really interested in the title until I learned it was PC only. That made me somewhat relieved when I found out it ends up sucking, though.

But shit! What a cool world! Reminds me of Pangea from THE MAXX.
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EmP posted October 20, 2009:

Thanks for the catches. I'm all fixed up.

Atlus have actually just got involved with the game, and it's going to show up on XBLA. So, maybe, a PSN version will follow -- who knows! It's a game I'm glad I played, even if it tries its level best to ruin istelf at the end.
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Suskie posted October 20, 2009:

the game limps rather than strides towards the finale The end game disappoints,

What's this?!
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EmP posted October 20, 2009:

Also fixed. Man, only four people have read this review, and half of them are to complain!
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Lewis posted October 20, 2009:

Ha! Probably doing a Zeno Clash short review for the brevity tournament. This were reet good!
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EmP posted October 20, 2009:

You could have saved me a review! Curse you, Denby!
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Lewis posted October 20, 2009:

Dunno if it would have suited. The review, nearly finished, is about 200 words long.
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wolfqueen001 posted October 25, 2009:

haha. This game sounds awesome in a really strange and weird way. Shame it gets kind of clunky towards the end. Was that picture there when you first wrote this? haha. I don't remember it being there, but maybe I just wasn't paying attention somehow.

Anyway, I liked how the review started off. It was really strong until the last 2 or three paragraphs where it started feeling about as clunky as you described the game. But that's just first impression. Still good, though. Ashamedly, I was somewhat skeptical that you would've covered it well enough in the length you allotted it, but you did a good job there. I mean, I know reviews can still be short and yet effective, as the point of the current contest shows, but still. The perception I get with that really depends on the game being covered. Still, I feel kind of bad about doubting, especially since it's you. Sorry about that. haha.

Anyway, good to know the huge amount of work you've been doing lately hasn't affected the quality of the writing any.
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EmP posted October 26, 2009:

I have edited all your suggestions. Through editing.

Thanks, anyway. I also felt it started to drag near the end, but I had nothing else in mind to write and a deadline tiking away, so I rushed it a little. I don;t think it's the worst thing I'll ever write, so I can't grumble too much, I guess.

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