ACE Team, a small, independent studio from Chile, have been toying with concepts for Zeno Clash for a large portion of this decade. After an initial release on PC one year ago, publisher Atlus has helped bring the one-of-a-kind, first-person brawler to the Xbox 360, via Xbox Live Arcade. Not many games have as much personality as Zeno Clash, most don't even come close. ACE have managed to craft an extremely imaginative world that feels like something out of the dark, gruesome corners of Lewis Carroll's mind. In addition, the unique, first-person fighting perspective is immersive and well designed. At first glance, some elements of the presentation may seem rough, but considering it's possible to count the developers of Zeno Clash on both hands, it's an impressive accomplishment.
Set in the world of Zenozoik, Zeno Clash follows the travels of the game's protagonist, Ghat. The story commences immediately after Ghat has killed Father-Mother - a mysterious, hermaphroditic creature who also happens to be the sole parent of a large, powerful clan of human and humanoid offspring, of which Ghat is a member. After killing their leader, Ghat's siblings chase him and his female companion, Deadra, out of their fortress home of Halstedom. The narrative is divided up between Ghat's flashbacks of the events that lead to the killing of Father-Mother, and his present journey through the strange wilderness around Halstedom. By the end, several plot holes and unanswered questions are very apparent, and certain characters feel underdeveloped. However, the excellent atmosphere and consistent world make up for most of the issues.
The bizarre, yet intriguing, premise is held together by a masterfully crafted world, full of memorable characters, settings, and events. It's the strange encounters going from one point to another that make the experience worthwhile. For instance, once outside Halstedom, Ghat and Deadra run into the fascinating Corwids - seemingly insane creatures. No longer "slaves of reality," each one has chosen a particular madness to follow. One Corwid feels the need to pluck out eyeballs, another only walks in a continuous straight line, one likes to be eaten, one likes to eat people, it goes on. The game is a non-stop roller coaster of these kinds of interesting encounters, almost to a fault because some feel passed over too quickly. The Corwids, for example, could easily have an entire game world, but instead are featured in only a few levels.
Zeno Clash's combat is well designed and satisfying. The brawling features a variety of options such as light attacks, heavy assaults, blocking, dodging, counterattacks, and context specific moves. There's a good amount of depth too, along with the wide skill set. Mastering different combinations takes some practice, but simpler combos can also be used effectively. It's rare for a brawler like Zone Clash to use a first-person perspective, fortunately ACE nailed it. Combat feels visceral and immersive thanks to the first-person viewpoint, which includes blinking, as well as fading in and out of consciousness. Landing a strong blow sends the screen shaking, controller vibrating, and, if players themselves get tagged with one, their vision gets blurred. It all comes together in a great package that makes even the simplest battles somewhat entertaining.Outside of straight up brawling, there are a number of other mechanics used to make sure nothing overstays its welcome. Ghat can use a number of weapons including, wooden sticks, hammers, torches, arrows, and guns. The shooting mechanics aren't nearly as strong as the fighting, but they are competent enough to still be a useful alternative. This is certainly helpful as certain fights require shooting. One drawback to all of this variety is a somewhat frustrating control scheme. The best example is having the lock-on and pick up actions mapped to the same button, which is frequently irritating when it goes the wrong way. The bottom line, throughout Zeno Clash (combat included), is that new experiences are constantly thrown at the player which keep things fresh and exciting - with the exception of a few stages late in the game, where certain encounters are recycled a bit too much.
The only element of Zeno Clash that clearly indicates the game came from an independent studio is the presentation. Without access to multimillion dollar budgets ACE focused on art direction over technical power, with great results. Operating on Valve's Source engine can't produce the crisp textures, or number of polygons we've grown accustom to on major releases. That being said, the art style more then makes up for this. The environments are vibrant and characters models varied, each with substantial attention to detail. From an art perspective, it's a good looking game.
Visual presentation aside, the rest is more of a mixed bag. The soundtrack is well put together, the tracks set the tone of each stage very well. On the other hand, the voice acting and syncing are inconsistent, and the way Zeno Clash communicates information to the player leaves much to be desired. Tips come in the form of text instructions which interrupt the action every time. Sometimes the game will spell out how to defeat a boss before it's even been attempted, other times it won't say anything. This means some trial and error is involved. Providing hints through visual clues always seem like a much better option.
The campaign is relatively short, around four hours, but it still feels substantial once completed. After finishing the story mode, there are challenge arenas, and time trials available to perfect those brawling skills and compete on the online leaderboards. The challenges can be played cooperatively with a buddy spilt-screen, or over Xbox Live. They're nice additions, but unless players are obsessively addicted to the core combat they probably won't last that long.
Zeno Clash is a truly unique experience. The game's strengths are its bizarre, but strangely compelling, world, its first-person brawling - implemented better here than any game I can think of, mainly because there aren't many of them - and the memorable art direction. The game is constantly full of surprises to keep players engaged. ACE should be proud of their achievement. Zeno Clash does, however, have its fair share of flaws, namely holes in the plot, unanswered questions, some rough presentation, as well as minor control and design issues. Ultimately, the game is better than the sum of its parts. Check it out, I guarantee you haven't played anything like it.