Clash: Artifacts of Chaos Review
Round and round till the fighting stops
So you want to beat up strange animals but don’t have access to a zoo? Clash: Artifacts of Chaos could be the game for you. But this animal-bashing simulator is not a walk in the park. Set in the same universe as Zeno Clash 1 and 2, and made by the same developers at ACE Team, the absence of “Zeno” represents a significant change in how it plays. This is primarily a third-person brawler with Dark Souls-style progression and exploration in a semi-open world. It is more difficult than its first-person predecessors, but still features the wonderful land of Zenozoik and some amazing visuals. While a decent game overall, Clash: Artifacts of Chaos’s world traversal and brawling can feel like beating a dead horse.
This is the story of a hermit and a boy
You play as Pseudo, an odd-looking hermit living a peaceful life away from everybody else. One day he sees an old man die in a physical altercation, leaving behind his grandson, creatively known as the Boy. Best described as a Furby crossed with a Raven, the Boy can heal others but is not strong enough to travel alone. Pseudo offers to take him to the nearest town so a random traveler can help. The town’s guards let Pseudo waltz right up to its multi-headed leader, Gemini, who wants the Boy’s special healing powers for herself. Not keen to give the Boy to this nefarious character, Pseudo decides instead to ferry the feathered Furby to the kid’s estranged brother, somewhere deep in the mountains. Along the way, a trader mentions that Gemini and her three goons can be beaten with the four Great Artifacts. Each one is located at a different point on the compass.
Initially the Boy’s brother is not eager to help, so Pseudo beats some sense into him until he provides a clue about the first Great Artifact. In the west, an outcast is on the run from Gemini, but he won’t give up his prize until Pseudo wallops him into capitulation. Pseudo’s old master has another Great Artifact, and, you guessed it, he needs to be fought before it can be acquired. The narrative essentially sees Pseudo letting his fists do the talking, and they have a lot to say.
Pseudo and the Boy occasionally talk to each other on the trek. Somewhat like God of War (2018), the two build a familiar rapport. The Boy is a likable ball of feathers, occasionally singing or interacting with statues in the world. Pseudo starts off as a gruff loner and eventually becomes the overprotective father-figure. This relationship arc is unsurprising, apart from the ending, but at least the narrative largely stays out of the way whenever the beatings start.
The Boy will be with you for most of the journey across Zenozoik
As a third-person brawler, just about anything that moves can be beaten into submission. Verse a vulture. Clobber a crab. Smash a serpent. Deck a deer. And thump a pterodactyl. All these native creatures are hostile and fair game in the world of Zenozoik. Most animals are a pushover, though. They might take a sliver of your health, to foster good brawling technique. Aside from providing experience, some drop resources to trade for short-lived melee weapons or armor. Hitting them does help to grow the persistent attack meter, which, once maxed, lets Pseudo enter a first-person mode to unleash a flurry of punches; ah, there is the Zeno Clash we know and love.
The most important fights are against the sentient foes with the series’ classic “versus” screen appearing before the action commences. These versus fights are staggered at regular intervals and usually comprise of two to four enemies, with different attack styles and body shapes.
But before one of these fights begins, you usually have the option of enacting the Ritual. This Ritual is a chance-based mini-game that involves throwing die and dropping small totems that decrease or increase dice values. The Boy can even play on your behalf, and he is decent enough at it. Better totems and more die can be purchased from traders to improve your odds, but the enemies scale so it just gets more complicated and takes longer to complete. The winner of the Ritual gets to deploy their chosen consequence artifact during the fight. These consequence artifacts are found throughout the world, and they might tether a single opponent, apply poison, or bring an ally into the fight.
The Ritual offers a chance to win a minor advantage
While the Ritual game itself is not bad, it does get boring and takes up too much time. It is actually quicker and more reliable to just ignore the prompt and get close to the opponent during the slow motion waiting period. After a short time, the Ritual prompt will vanish and the fight commences, and you can probably get one good free hit in since the enemies take a second to enter their fighting posture. Since one of the consequence artifacts is actually a free hit, there is not great incentive to use the Ritual outside of enjoying its own brand of dice-throwing.
The versus fights can be hard, since the opponents have the numbers. This is a tougher game than the Zeno Clash titles, with no difficulty options, although similar techniques to those games will help to win the day. Fights benefit from good positioning, the frequent use of dodge, and managing limited stamina. Parry is less reliable but can redirect thrown rocks. One of the most enjoyable parts of combat is seeing opponents hit each other, as you shuffle to make that more likely. Cramped areas can make the combat frustrating though, when there are multiple opponents and native animals join the fray. Pseudo has different stances and special attacks to use, but swapping stances did not seem that useful. Putting maximum points into one stance and a few special attacks, like spin-kick and reverse-punch, was adequate for the entire game. Unlike the roaming animals, these versus fights are like bosses because they do not return after you sleep at a campsite.
Campsites are the game’s version of bonfires with its Dark Souls structure. The campsites function as save points, and you only need to walk near one to save the game. The camp lets you craft health potions and level up your character. You can also switch to nighttime by sleeping in the tent, which lets you explore via Pseudo’s imaginary form, where he looks like he is made out of wood and travels without the Boy.
At night, you can find gear and open shortcuts
Night exploration lets you cross bramble obstacles to access hidden caches and defeat mini-bosses. The world has slightly tougher opponents than during the day—they tend to be wood versions of the sentient characters. There is also the opportunity to find night-form armor to slowly improve your alter ego. Killing mini-bosses will clear bramble and let day-Pseudo explore deeper, which is required a few times. The night provides a bit of contrast, but there are some hard fights in the same place as the day, so it slows progression. Exploring at night has limited range too, so you will have to wake up to navigate further.
If you die during the day, you get one chance to recover your body via an automatic switch to night. If death was from falling off a cliff or losing a fight to a crab (the shame), then body recovery is usually easy and night turns back into day. If Pseudo perished in a versus fight, then you have to battle the same group again at full health (with no Ritual option). Night Pseudo did feel stronger than his day version, able to deal more damage and endure more pain, but that could be survivorship bias.
Night or day, the most disappointing part of the world is that it is actually unpleasant to navigate. There are so many cramped and indirect navigation lanes. Locked doors and movable boulders are a frequent sight, usually serving as shortcuts, and to open them, you’ll have to snake around an obscure side route that might involve jumping and climbing. Paths loop back on themselves often, with ledges that can only be passed in one direction. It is like walking across multiple interconnected mobius strips with blockages every few paces. With only a vague map, trying to get to a specific location requires a sturdy grasp of the three-dimensional space and you may get lost, especially if you take a break from playing.
The fighting never stops
This tedious navigation is made worse by repetition. The whole game is essentially a series of fights. There are too many similar brawls across the 10-15 hour adventure and nothing else to break it up. Once any fight begins (or the Ritual prompt appears), it must be completed. You cannot flee, as you will automatically die outside the arbitrary fight zone. It is possible to stumble into battle and realize you are up against tough opponents with no health vials left. Certain areas are deliberately harder too, like in the Souls games, but you won’t know until you perish, and will then have to reverse course. It is great when games don’t hold the player’s hand, but it would be nice if the game acknowledged that my hands were capable of more than just punching.
The visual presentation is a knockout though. It is such a joy to see how the world of Zenozoik has evolved since its humble beginnings in Zeno Clash 1, way back in 2009. This is another huge visual leap forward. It looks stunning, with so many bizarre creatures and colorful landscapes. Players are in for a treat, whether visiting the coastal shallows to the west or the frosty mountains in the east. There is an interesting art style here too, with sketch lines that create a hand-drawn cartoon look. It all runs smoothly, although areas are broken into many smaller pieces with brief loads between them. In tandem with the graphics is a good contemplative soundtrack that uses chanting choirs and epic orchestral waves, along with more classical fight music and a good variety of instruments. The songs are used smartly on a few occasions, for story purposes, and the music does not get old.
First-person attacks bring back fond memories of Zeno Clash 1 and 2
Although Clash: Artifacts of Chaos does drag its feet, the game still has enough positives to offer players. Best of all is the amazing visual appearance of Zenozoik and its many awesome inhabitants, combined with the great music, that make it worth playing for its presentation alone. Fans of the Zeno Clash games will get a kick out of the visual upgrade. As a third-person beat-em-up, the fisticuffs can be enjoyable despite there being too much of it and little else. The associated Ritual mini-game is fine but does not provide enough benefit or lasting value. While the many Dark Souls traits are obvious and make the game challenging, the levels are consistently annoying to navigate due to their indirect routes and confusing structure. Clash: Artifacts of Chaos is a good way to beat up strange critters in stunning environments, even if it doesn’t land all of its punches.