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Zeno Clash: Ultimate Edition (Xbox 360) artwork

Zeno Clash: Ultimate Edition (Xbox 360) review

"Zeno Clash is so aggressively bizarre that when you call it “imaginative,” you’re in danger of giving its creators more credit than they deserve. So much of what’s here strikes me as weirdness for the sake of weirdness that the game’s most beautiful or striking moments, of which there are many, may very well have turned up by complete accident."

Zeno Clash is so aggressively bizarre that when you call it “imaginative,” you’re in danger of giving its creators more credit than they deserve. So much of what’s here strikes me as weirdness for the sake of weirdness that the game’s most beautiful or striking moments, of which there are many, may very well have turned up by complete accident. I have no idea what’s going on in this game, and there’s a chance that the developers aren’t very far ahead of me.

Oh, sure, I could tell you the basic plot. Set in a dreamlike fantasy world full of cavemen, Zeno Clash concerns a young man named Ghat who’s forced into exile after killing the parental figure of a tribal family. Most of the game follows his journey as he recounts his adventures with his largely useless female companion. That’s all conventional enough, but the absurdity is in the fine details. One of Ghat’s adversaries is a fellow who seeks to become invisible, and thus removes the eyes of anyone who can see him; Ghat later encounters another creature who walks in a straight line until he hits an immovable object and dies. The parental figure itself is Father-Mother, a tall, lanky hermaphrodite who’s produced all of the members of the tribe and sports an enormous beak of a nose. Many of the characters have actual beaks, because they’re birdmen. You can see what sort of game this is.

Beginning in medias res during Ghat’s escape was a particularly odd choice, because the characters speak as if we’re already supposed to know what’s going on. It often feels as if a new proper noun is being introduced in every line of dialog, and Ghat’s voice actor takes on a matter-of-fact tone (perhaps intentionally) when describing the most bizarre things. He’ll often state something and follow with a variation of the phrase, “And that’s just how it is.” We’re simply meant to accept what’s unfolding before us rather than question it. It’s as if the writers want to save us the hassle of figuring out what all of this means by warning us that it doesn’t mean anything. It’s dreamlike in that nothing makes sense, yet that’s part of what makes it so weirdly engrossing.

Describing Zeno Clash as a game is nearly as difficult as describing its world and aesthetic. It’s shown through a first-person perspective and the single-player campaign juggles adventuring, shooting and brawling. It comfortably focuses on that last element for most of its run, which pleases me because that's easily what the game does best. The hand-to-hand combat is deep and highly rewarding, encouraging players to balance quick jabs and guard-breaking slugs with all manner of dodges, blocks and counter attacks. You’re brought up to speed with the basics during the opening minutes. Most of the characters you fight abide by the same rules as you, so understanding the combat isn’t difficult. Working yourself into a rhythm of alternating offense and defense, parrying your enemies’ blows and striking back with a few of your own, is a steep but gratifying climb.

The melee combat is brutal, and I don’t mean that it’s visceral or even bloody, but simply dizzyingly violent. Each punch is accompanied by an exaggeratedly loud sound effect, and the camera rocks and sways with every strike. It’s a good, in-your-face feeling that makes a great case for the first-person perspective in which hand-to-hand combat is rarely pulled off this well (and, in fact, seldom used to this extent). When the campaign doesn’t come off as a one-way acid trip, it’s an excuse to set you up for as many melee battles as possible. Zeno Clash: Ultimate Edition (as it’s called on Xbox 360) also includes a number of cooperative challenges that center on fist fighting. That’s where most of the achievements are buried, too. The developers at ACE certainly had their priorities straight.

Zeno Clash’s other elements don’t work nearly as well, however. The shooting, with primitive versions of your bog standard rifles and shotguns, tends to grow old quickly. Most of Zeno Clash’s most intelligent enemies are fought in hand-to-hand combat. As such, the game’s corridor shooter bits tend to pit you against varieties of wildlife which aren’t interesting foes. Similarly, anything that isn’t expressly action-oriented feels slow in comparison to the energetic melee battles. Sometimes the game plays like a showcase for its wondrous set pieces, but they’re not nearly as impressive under close inspection because so many of Zeno Clash’s environments suffer from repetition. And while the game’s abundant weirdness certainly raises eyebrows, the narrative is so disconnected from anything remotely feasible that it’s difficult to sympathize with any of the characters. The game’s expository bits rarely drag, but I still wanted to get back to the fisticuffs whenever I found myself watching them.

I have a feeling that Zeno Clash would have worn on me if it had provided more than its mere three or four hours of play. The inconsistency in its approach and even the melee combat don’t feel expansive enough to last the span of a full-length game. While its quirkiness draws eyes, I doubt there’s much more under Zeno Clash’s surface than weirdness for its own sake and I have very little desire to explore this world more than I did in the course of completing the game. While Zeno Clash feels like a low-budget title (despite looking quite nice), I’d like to think its short length was a stylistic decision. If it is, ACE has hit a sweet spot, delivering an intriguingly bizarre product that whets our appetite and lasts just long enough to remain entertaining throughout while sporting an appropriate price point.

Suskie's avatar
Freelance review by Mike Suskie (May 14, 2010)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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