Review: Zeno Clash

PC – Keyboard / Mouse – 2009
Developer: ACE Team
Publisher: Valve Corporation
Playtime: 3.3 hours
Paid: $9.99 on Steam.

Zeno Clash has received a Metacritic score of 78. Sales are a mystery, but were apparently good enough to warrant a sequel.

This is probably the strangest commercially-released game I’ve played. Even its origins are a surprise – an independently-developed Chilean effort running on the Source engine, currently only digitally-distributed (unless you import from a selection of Eastern European nations). The first thing that will really strike you is the art style. The world of Zenozoik is bizarre, colourful, and beautiful. Character, creature, and item design is similarly outlandish yet impressive, and it is frankly difficult to find anything to draw comparisons with. Certainly it is an original experience in terms of design.

You play as Ghat, one of the children of Father-Mother (who Ghat has apparently just killed, fleeing his town of Halstedom. This is how you are thrown into the game, and this is roughly the amount of explanation initially given. Zeno Clash is essentially a first-person arena combat game, in which Ghat is pitted against a number of enemies, doing battle with his bare hands and a selection of both melee and ranged weapons, which are original and well-conceived in design. This combat is challenging, but was at just the right level for me, where I experienced the fear of losing without doing so often (with the exception of one particular fight), resulting in no frustration and a raw sense of pride. This pride results from the brutal combat, which is ferocious and unrelenting – Ghat definitely isn’t messing around, and neither are the opponents. The screams of pain serve to remind you that, say, kneeing someone in the face repeatedly would really, really hurt them. The first-person perspective on fisticuffs combat adds to the visceral feeling of combat.

The story is told in a non-linear fashion, while the game itself is absolutely linear. A good deal of the game is flashback – these levels explain the actions (and to an extent the reasoning behind them) which have led to the situation Ghat and his companion Deadra are in. It continues to be unconventional, but remains interesting as more and more elements are explained, and more characters are introduced. There are some neat ideas in this game, often in the characters (particularly the Corwid of the Free). The story is also somewhat tragic, and is certainly not one I can say I’ve heard before. However, some factors go unexplained. Presumably the sequel will give some more reasoning. As an intellectual property, this series could continue for a few sequels, given enough new ideas.

The game looks great, and performed well for me; being based on the Source engine, it should work well on many computers. Strangely for a single-player Source experience, the developers opted for a checkpoint save system rather than one where the player can quick-save at any time. There is literally no way to save, which feels both unnatural and unsettling. Admittedly, the addition of the quick-save could result in players getting a good blow in, saving, and loading whenever they take damage. In the one break I took from the game, I had to repeat about five minutes of gameplay (so, one battle) and an unskippable cutscene; this wasn’t so bad, merely because firstly, it’s short, but also because it settles you back into the game atmosphere and serves as a reminder of progress.

Zeno Clash is extremely combat-intensive, and could become aggravating to those who find these battles overly difficult. (The default difficulty level is named “Hard”.) A particularly enjoyable touch is that before some battles, a brief splash screen appears with a picture of Ghat across from pictures of the enemies in the upcoming conflict, in traditional beat-‘em-up style. Most combat scenarios involve fending off multiple aggressors, and it seems that given the wrong timing, you could be stuck in a hugely annoying, iterative chain of attacks from one to the other which would result in a feeling of helplessness and death, as one acquaintance experienced. These aggressors are really recurring characters, some of which play major roles in the storyline. The use of weapons in direct combat is interesting, as Ghat can only hold the one weapon at a time, and cannot block while holding it (the block button is also the “throw weapon” button), which means you have to balance hand-to-hand combat with the use of arms.

There are some interesting passages of play where the gameplay makes a total switch, and these passages pack more personality into the game. The characters and vocal work for each, as well as language unique to the setting, all add flavour and are well-designed and performed. I have heard complaints about repetitiveness, but the game is so short that it’s not really a big issue. I suspect that my completion time was in part due to my few deaths – I felt like I was doing surprisingly well, although I was lucky at times. There is more to do after finishing the story, particularly if you hunt Steam achievements. There are also Challenge Towers to climb. Presumably, they are challenging.

Zeno Clash is a thoroughly enjoyable and unique experience. It is very short, very cheap, and was made by a very small development team, but is packed with personality. A demo is available on Steam.

Zeno Clash
PC – Keyboard / Mouse – 2009
Developer: ACE Team
Publisher: Valve Corporation
Playtime: 3.3 hours

Zeno Clash has received a Metacritic score of 78. Sales are a mystery, but were apparently good enough to warrant a sequel.

This is probably the strangest commercially-released game I’ve played. Even its origins are a surprise – an independently-developed Chilean effort running on the Source engine, currently only digitally-distributed (unless you import from a selection of Eastern European nations). The first thing that will really strike you is the art style. The world of Zenozoik is bizarre, colourful, and beautiful. Character, creature, and item design is similarly outlandish yet impressive, and it is frankly difficult to find anything to draw comparisons with. Certainly it is an original experience in terms of design.

You play as Ghat, one of the children of Father-Mother (who Ghat has apparently just killed, fleeing his town of Halstedom. This is how you are thrown into the game, and this is roughly the amount of explanation initially given. Zeno Clash is essentially a first-person arena combat game, in which Ghat is pitted against a number of enemies, doing battle with his bare hands and a selection of both melee and ranged weapons, which are original and well-conceived in design. This combat is challenging, but was at just the right level for me, where I experienced the fear of losing without doing so often (with the exception of one particular fight), resulting in no frustration and a raw sense of pride. This pride results from the brutal combat, which is ferocious and unrelenting – Ghat definitely isn’t messing around, and neither are the opponents. The screams of pain serve to remind you that, say, kneeing someone in the face repeatedly would really, really hurt them. The first-person perspective on fisticuffs combat adds to the visceral feeling of combat.

The story is told in a non-linear fashion, while the game itself is absolutely linear. A good deal of the game is flashback – these levels explain the actions (and to an extent the reasoning behind them) which have led to the situation Ghat and his companion Deadra are in. It continues to be unconventional, but remains interesting as more and more elements are explained, and more characters are introduced. There are some neat ideas in this game, often in the characters (particularly the Corwid of the Free). The story is also somewhat tragic, and is certainly not one I can say I’ve heard before. However, some factors go unexplained. Presumably the sequel will give some more reasoning. As an intellectual property, this could go a long way.

The game looks great, and performed well for me; being based on the Source engine, it should work well on many computers. Strangely for a single-player Source experience, the developers opted for a checkpoint save system rather than one where the player can quick-save at any time. There is literally no way to save, which feels both unnatural and unsettling. Admittedly, the addition of the quick-save could result in players getting a good blow in, saving, and loading whenever they take damage. In the one break I took from the game, I had to repeat about five minutes of gameplay (so, one battle) and an unskippable cutscene; this wasn’t so bad, merely because firstly, it’s short, but also because it settles you back into the game atmosphere and serves as a reminder of progress.

Zeno Clash is extremely combat-intensive, and could become aggravating to those who find these battles overly difficult. (The default difficulty level is named “Hard”.) A particularly enjoyable touch is that before some battles, a brief splash screen appears with a picture of Ghat across from pictures of the enemies in the upcoming conflict, in traditional beat-‘em-up style. Most combat scenarios involve fending off multiple aggressors, and it seems that given the wrong timing, you could be stuck in a hugely annoying, iterative chain of attacks from one to the other which would result in a feeling of helplessness and death, as one acquaintance experienced. These aggressors are really recurring characters, some of which play major roles in the storyline. The use of weapons in direct combat is interesting, as Ghat can only hold the one weapon at a time, and cannot block while holding it (the block button is also the “throw weapon” button), which means you have to balance hand-to-hand combat with the use of arms.

There are some interesting passages of play where the gameplay makes a total switch, and these passages pack more personality into the game. The characters and vocal work for each, as well as language unique to the setting, all add flavour and are well-designed and performed. I have heard complaints about repetitiveness, but the game is so short that it’s not really a big issue. I suspect that my completion time was in part due to my few deaths – I felt like I was doing surprisingly well, although I was lucky at times. There is more to do after finishing the story, particularly if you hunt Steam achievements. There are also Challenge Towers to climb. Presumably, they are challenging.

Zeno Clash is a thoroughly enjoyable and unique experience. It is very short, very cheap, and was made by a very small development team, but is packed with personality. A demo is available on Steam.

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