'Zeno Clash' PC Review

June 5, 2009 § Leave a comment

Score: 4 out of 5

Despite its bland, forgettable title, Zeno Clash is a remarkable game from small indie developer ACE Team. In essence, it’s a first-person brawler set in a tribal/fantasy universe. You occupy the role of Ghat, an outcast, who awakens from unconsciousness following a vicious fight with the clan’s leader, Father-Mother. With Father-Mother dead, Ghat is left with no other choice but to escape from Halstedom, his home town, with the help of his female companion, Deadra. The rest of the game switches back and forth between Ghat’s current predicament and him recounting the days leading up to Father-Mother’s death.

There are eighteen levels in all, each following a broadly similar pattern. The level design is extremely linear; very few chapters of the story require exploration and most set you in front of a long, narrow path, followed by a fight sequence or boss battle, usually set in a small arena or “hub” area. The combat is chiefly focused on using your fists as weapons; you can block, dodge, parry and perform various combos to knock out your opponents and the controls are such that you’ll be able to do these things fairly easily. The “brawler” aspect of the combat works really well and has a strong visceral feel to it. Every uppercut and kick to the gut has that satisfying “smack” sound, similar to what you’d hear in an old Western.

While the meat of the combat lies in the more rustic, James T. Kirk-style bar brawls, sometimes you’ll be put in a position where you can acquire and use ranged weapons such as rifles, dual pistols and a grenade launcher, as well as more heavyweight melee weapons, such as a hammer or large stick. The guns in the game look nice, sound authentic and handle well, but they aren’t the real focus. Your character can also pick up and throw grenades – “skull bombs” – but they are all but useless against most fast moving targets.

While the combat in the game is entertaining, the action is directed in a very straight forward and repetitive manner. What gives the game it’s “je ne sais quoi” quality, however, is the strange world it forges within the player’s mind and the bizarre characters which inhabit that world. The universe of Zenozoik – the game world – is a perverse and alien one; the landscape and architecture are not from this reality, and this is all echoed in the minimalist, moody soundtrack. The musical score in this game is beautiful, haunting and, most appropriately, feels like it’s from another world; it’s just a phenomenal, brilliant piece of work.

Zeno Clash seems to be using a modified version of the Half-Life 2 engine, but because of the original, unique, colourful art design, everything looks incredible. It’s a telling sign that, despite the discontinuity between chapters and the linear nature of the story, I felt completely absorbed in the narrative of Zeno Clash – its heroes, its villains and its mysteries.

The level of detail gone into the various locales is exquisite

The level of detail gone into the various locales is exquisite

Apart from the main story mode, there is a further Challenge Mode, in which you scale a tower, ascending one level at a time, defeating everyone you encounter until you get to the end of the level or you die. It’s an okay-ish distraction, but because the levels all look the same – simple, identical, small arenas – it lacks much of the appeal of the main single player mode. The charm of Zeno Clash, after all, is in its unique narrative, and the Challenge Mode is too abstract and too far removed from this for it to be rewarding in itself.

As I said, there are eighteen levels, and they all last around fifteen minutes each. I think you can work out for yourselves that that’s not a lot of playtime overall. I worked it out at around four-and-a-half hours total, minus the small load screens and times you may die and have to replay a level. And this is my big criticism against the game: four-and-a-half hours of entertainment for just under fifteen pounds isn’t that great a deal, in my book. For the amount of time it takes to complete the game, and with the little replay value it offers, fifteen pounds is really quite expensive for this amount of content. Seriously, I’ve bought XBLA games that lasted longer and cost less than this.

However, the feeling I got out of finishing the game was not one of being short-changed at all. No, having completed the game I have been left a tortured soul, left wanting more: I want to know more of this universe and its characters; I want to know what happens next; and what I’d really want is to be able to explore this world openly, freely, without the restrictive level design.

With baited breath, I eagerly await their recently announced sequel for the series, but, ACE Team: how about a little more content next time, huh?

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