Zeno Clash Review
PCMay 9, 2012 by Joe Shaffer
A budding development team--let's call them ACE Team--cracked open a long sealed vault. Covered from head to toe in myriad spider webs, caked dust and grime, wrapped in a holey blanket of leather and denim, lay a long forgotten cadaver: the brawler genre. One amongst them smiled and said, "Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology!" They knew the genre would never live if they revived it as is, because it lacked the evolutionary bits needed to survive in today's world. They spliced the genes of the fallen genre with that of a first-person shooter. And there it stood--imperfect, experimental, creative, thrilling: Zeno Clash.
I didn't know what to expect from Zeno Clash. Most sites referred to it as a "first-person action" title. "First-person action?" Like Half-Life? Like Anvil of Dawn? Or maybe like Deus Ex? It was a vague way to describe the game, and it only scratches the surface. A better way to sum it up: first-person beat 'em up on acid.
But even that only scratches the surface. After watching the initial cutscene, my jaw went slack. It wasn't a moment of awe, but that of confusion, and in a good way. Anthropomorphic creatures chill in a Star Wars-like cantina, an altercation breaks out, a tall bird-like creature falls, and our strangely-dressed hero hits the road. He embarks on a odyssey across a peculiar and forbidding land, where bits of earth jut from the ground at odd angles, forests full of twisted and colorful trees hide crazed man-beasts, swamps threaten to end his life with a legion of living shadows, and a gorgeous, purple night sky belies the safety of a narrow pink river. Even the characters, clad in what can best be described as random clothing, add to the game's weirdness. Anthropomorphic animals join the roster to kick your tail, also joined by horribly deformed menaces and soulless creatures. By the ending, you'll walk away convinced that Dr. Seuss, Guillermo del Toro, Jim Henson, and Clive Barker had a hand in development.
Maybe I'm wrong. Perhaps it was awe I was experiencing. I never knew what Zeno Clash was going to throw at me next. When the unexpected reared its head, as it did very often, I wanted to spend more time admiring how deliciously odd and insane it was, soak in the sights and digest what was before me. Instead, I had to tangle violently with the oddness. I brawled with a bunch of mask-wearing loonies, had a shootout with a sniper wearing a crab on his face, and hunted aberrant rabbits for food.
It's this kind of strangeness that makes fusing together two very different genres seem, well, ordinary. Before playing this game, I was convinced a first-person brawler could never work. When my first opponents approached me, ACE proved me wrong. With each mouse click, I saw my firsts colliding with my opponent's face. It made the action feel more personal, like I was right there to witness it. I got the sense that I was really jacking some annoying bird-man's jaw... er, beak? It didn't stop with basic punches. Wear your opponent down, and he's all yours to toy with. You can give him a nose job with repeated knees to the face, send him flying with a fierce uppercut, or even grab a nearby weapon to bash his brains in. Sometimes there's no sweeter violence than a cracking a heavy, blunt object over your opponent's cranium.
Punching faces shouldn't be your sole priority. A good fighter knows when to dodge and when to block, or even when to deflect blows and retaliate with a punishing counter. With the way the game mixes up its offense, you'll need all of the above. Though you shouldn't have much problem dispatching enemies in the first few levels, later fellas will force you into a game of waiting and reacting. The only thing constant clicking will get you in the later stages is a bunch of blocked punches. Meanwhile, you'll have to deal with that enemy's teammates. You'll learn to become more aware of your surroundings, especially when a roundhouse kick to the back of your head interrupts what could have been a finishing combo.
Zeno Clash takes a few breaks from brawling to add some much needed variety. Gunning down wild beasts is the perfect rest from repeated punching. One very intriguing level will have you grab a special scepter that fires blue flames. It's just what you'll need against an army of shadow creatures that rise up from the muck. The great thing about stages like this is they arrive just as you feel you need a break from the bashing, and end right as you think, "You know, I'd like to get back to face punching."
The game showcases variety, action, and creativity. Perfection, on the other hand, is out of reach. While the control scheme is quite expansive, giving you many useful options in combat, it can be daunting. There's so much to remember that you'll usually forget some of the more useful techniques, only to remember them after you've been killed. It's part of a tough learning curve that comes with playing something so unique. There is also one very irritating aspect involving target lock-on. Like any combat-oriented action title, you can lock onto targets. It's generally accepted in most games that if you do not activate the lock-on, it will not activate itself. Not true here. Hitting an enemy automatically locks onto the target, even when you don't want it to. There have been many times that I'd forgotten this after hitting an enemy, and it resulted in my demise. When locked onto an enemy, you cannot turn away from it until you have canceled the lock. There were many times that I'd punch an enemy, then try to run away to grab an weapon. While I kept trying to run away, not realizing why the screen wasn't panning properly, my nemesis was laying into me.
These complaints are small potatoes. Zeno Clash is a one of a kind title, a breath of fresh air. It revives classic brawler rules and applies them in such a unique and invigorating way that I can't help but love it. Think of it as new adaptation of Streets of Rage. Instead of brightly-colored punks and morbidly obese felons, you battle beast men and half-naked lunatics. Only this time you get to see the bewildered looks your opponents' faces as your unexpected reprisals shatter their hopes of ending your life. Thanks, ACE Team, for reviving a genre I thought dead.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.