‘Zeno Clash’ Is Really, Really Different

[8 June 2010]

By Rick Dakan

Games cannot thrive on weird alone. If you play as many games as I do or even a quarter as many, you’ve probably developed a bit of a fetish for the new and different. It’s always exciting to finally see something different. Zeno Clash is really, really different, a first person shooter that’s mostly about the melee combat set in a bizarre fantasy or maybe sci-fi world that is populated by surreal chimeric denizens and strange, senseless philosophies. The closest thing that I could think of in pop culture is the old pen and paper RPG Skyrealms of Jorune, which about three people in the world remember. Sure the vibrating, alien voice of Mother/Father pushed all my “that’s new!” buttons but would that be enough? Would it be any fun?

It takes some real ambition (or real insanity) to base your game on both an unusual and off putting setting and on a gameplay style that more often than not sucks. First person brawlers often end up clumsy and sort of silly feeling, and at first, Zeno Clash does feel a little clunky. But once you get used to it, the hand to hand combat really does come alive. Blows have weight behind them, and the timing system of blocking, dodging, deflecting and stringing together some simple combos rewards just a little practice with plenty of rewards.

There’s even some shooting in the game, but it’s not the quick run and gun of a Call of Duty game. Crossbows or flintlocks only have a few shots before ponderous reloading, and the quick-fire Dual Fish Guns aren’t very effective. Yes, the guns are fish. Did I mention the surreal thing? But I liked the shooting for this reason—it works just well enough that you want to use the guns when you can but aren’t shy about ditching them when the enemies close ranks and it’s time to punch and kick. Aside from one boss fight where you have to use a crossbow at long range while avoiding squirrels with dynamite strapped to them being parachuted down at you from the top of a dead whale, the shooting is used sparingly but well and provides some much needed variety to the game.

So setting wise and gameplay wise, Zeno Clash rises to the occasion. It’s fun to play and strikingly strange to behold. The last element to make it worthwhile is a good story. I’m not sure that it’s actually a good story, but it’s compelling enough to drive you forward. The game includes a lot of flashback levels, which could be unwieldy, but here they are handled with a deft hand. Right at level one, you’re on the run, having killed Father/Mother, a towering hermaphroditic creature who’s parent to you and your scores of brothers and sisters. As you flee familial wrath, you flash back to the events leading up to your decision to kill the family pa/matriarch. While the final revelation may not answer every question or live up to the story’s promise, it works well enough and made me want to see it through to the end.

Zeno Clash is far from a perfect game of course, but it’s a budget title. The movement has that super smooth, quick flow that I associate with Unreal Tournament. It gets you around quick, but it never feels real. The graphics aren’t great, but what they’re representing is so exotic and well designed that I didn’t mind. The voice acting isn’t top notch, but the dialog is naturally stilted and weird, and so the odd performances add to the experience rather than detract from it. The Ultimate Edition includes some arena-style co-op and other combat focused content that adds some semblance of value to the game. But really it’s the world and imagination of the setting that wooed me, and the non-campaign modes didn’t do much for me.

If you’re looking for a break from whatever gaming rut you might be in, Zeno Clash offers something new and different. More importantly, it’s something different that’s also fun to play.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/126396-zeno-clash/