Zeno Clash Review
Lots of hand to hand combat in a peculiar setting with unusual art design but ultimately too weird, mildly frustrating and repetitive.
Zeno Clash is a first person hand to hand combat title with occasional but lacklustre weapon use; it features arena style fights in smallish maps with an unusual story and different art style. You play as Ghat, a humanoid character who is on the run from his “family” after killing their Father-Mother. Zeno Clash is a tough game to review, on one hand you have an indie game that was put together by only a handful of people over a relatively short time, a mammoth effort. Alternatively you have a great artistic style that rivals many modern games.
Being an indie game the price point is low sitting at $20, so what you might expect is a relatively short game experience. And indeed after fists have been bloodied and the final “boss” is defeated you’ll be ticking just under the four hour mark. Of course due to the repetitive nature of the encounters if it went much longer you be looking at a diluted experience or an experience that you don’t particularly want to finish. The actual fist combat is not terrible, although at times it can be frustrating.
The combat is generally effective, it’s not just punch and defend you have various moves to counter and attack, evade along with normal running or dodging. Although I resorted to only a few that seemed to work well, the rest just felt like too much work. Many fights you can use weapons lying about, but if you get hit using a weapon it drops to the ground instantly and you might be bashed a few times trying to pick it up again. You’ll often want to lock onto enemies in order to attack them effectively but unfortunately when you are backed into a corner or just want to escape the fight briefly the game can get frustrating.
If you prefer using weapons, which I often did you’ll need to run away and reload so you don’t get attacked. The main sections of combat are broken up into arena style fights; even an annoying “vs” screen pops up showing who you are facing before every fight. Only some action sequences in the middle section don’t feel arena fight based but the rest present a fairly formulaic combat scenario, you’ll often be fighting the same enemies just in another map location.
The formula and situations are fairly repetitive for the basic action scenarios that you engage in for all but the mid section. You have standard human sized opponents who are nimble and you can go toe to toe with, many will attack you at once so positioning and timing is important. Then you have the larger brutes that will require some running and the use of a hammer type melee weapon to defeat. Basically this means is that you simply avoid their charge attacks and hit them after they have missed you. Mixing the two enemy types is common later on, which again becomes a bit frustrating but at the same time without this mixture the game would get quite stale.
The basic combat mechanics aren’t bad but at times it’s frustrating to be trapped behind a group of opponents or stuck up against a wall. I didn’t find the game overly hard, only a few times did I repeat some fights due to death. Most locations will have pieces of fruit around the edges of the map to collect and gain health mid combat. The hit and reach of you and your opponents isn’t terribly well realised by the actual game animations and you are not free to attack opponents getting up mid animation, preventing some major domination. Sometimes I felt like I was cheating the fighting by using a weapon or using the environment to dodge attacks and sometimes evade the AI, especially the bigger enemies. Although the AI does try to hide when you have a weapon loaded and then it may charge when you reload. What Zeno Clash lacks in gameplay variety it almost makes up in the funky art style.
The actual art style is quite good, it’s very different and the characters look very weird. You have weird alien looking creatures along with some creatures that are inspired from many different ideas. Although the female companion to Ghat is the most normal looking of the lot. It uses the source engine very effectively; although you don’t really notice it without paying close attention the maps are fairly small and linear with static backgrounds.
I didn’t have any technical problems although the game doesn’t let you save anywhere, not really an issue when you have a sub four hour game split into many auto-saved levels. Unfortunately unlike the strange art style I did not really get into the story at all, at times it was completely nonsensical just for the sake of being crazy. This craziness is reflected by the absurd dialog. The voice work is also fairly lacklustre for many of the characters which together with odd dialog doesn’t aid in storytelling. The combat and ambient music is satisfactory without a huge amount of variety, at least the main tunes don’t hinder the game experience.
Zeno Clash is by no means a bad game; it’s just not that enjoyable when you can’t get into the story and the bizarre setting only goes so far – some may find it actually uncomfortable in how weird or unusual the characters are. Many might relish that they are treated with something so unique and unusual that the fact that it’s not really related to the real world doesn’t worry them at all. The hand to hand combat is ok, and if you really like that feature in first person games then Zeno Clash is definitely something to check out when very few titles offer it. It is however not a shooting game, although you get a few weapons you often won’t have time or the space to use them and the feedback when using them is disappointing.
Zeno Clash is only $20 so it’s not a huge risk to see if you like this short and very weird title, but perhaps there are other titles both indie and big budget that fall into this price range that will be more fun. If the art style you’ve seen impresses you greatly then playing the game will be a fairly enjoyable ride, but if you don’t like fisticuffs and don’t see the visual appeal and prefer a more grounded tale then check elsewhere or wait for a demo.