No, Zeno Clash doesn’t want to be your friend. Zeno Clash only sorta cares if you like it. Zeno Clash is what it is.
Zeno Clash is doing a whole lot of unique things, and whether or not it actually pulls them off, I have to admire its commitment to being unlike any other video game out there. Produced by long-time mod makers, first-time game makers ACE Team, Zeno Clash is the latest indie title to receive wide release on consoles, and both its originality and its rough edges exemplify what the indie game scene is all about.
The basic gameplay itself isn’t unrecognizable, just unusual. Zeno Clash is a first-person brawler, a genre that many other titles have feinted at but none have really charged head-on. It ends up with the same problems as every other first-person brawler: It’s hard to gauge distances in 3D, and the deliberate pace required for a playable fighting game feels very unlike controlling a moving human body. But interesting enemy patterns and a dense (if not varied) combo system make fighting an engrossing strategic experience with a fair amount of viscerality.
What’s most notable about the game, though, is its bold visual style. The Hieronymous Bosch-inspired designs carry echoes of the Oddworld games or Psychonauts, but it’s carried out so completely and with such consistent inventiveness that the game world approaches Salvador Dalí-level visual shocks. Not only are the character designs striking, they’re also lovingly and creatively animated, even—especially!—the background creatures, who look like the friendly beasts from a beloved children’s book you only half-remember. If you’re the kind of gamer who plays in order to explore unique worlds, you owe it to yourself to see Zeno Clash.
Unfortunately, but inevitably, the storytelling doesn’t quite live up to the visual design. There’s a terrific mythos behind the game’s universe, with its androgynous masters and mad anarchist prophets, and the latter provide lots of memorable moments reminiscent of the trippier Marvel comics of the ’70s (Adam Warlock FTW!). But the atrocious voices of the leads will make you yearn for the mature thespians of an English-dubbed Final Fantasy game. It’s not even the fault of the bland actors; when half the characters have evocative audio effects to make their voices sound as unearthly as the world around them, the leads’ ordinary human voices leave me disinclined to identify with their lameness.
There’s other flaws, too, that betray a lack of playtesting: a few boss fights that are unnecessarily fussy, awkward weapon management, and confusing semi-open world sections that bog down the parade of battles. At $10, it would be a must-buy, but at $15 it gets demoted to must-try, especially given that the solo campaign is only four-to-six hours, filled out by some challenge modes.
Luckily, like all XBL games, it has a free trial (thanks, Microsoft!), so you can pick it up yourself and decide if you find the unusual combat and extraordinary world engaging enough to deserve your points. If you do, you’ll be supporting a new independent studio, published by those marvelous madmen at Atlus who specialize in bringing us things we didn’t know we wanted. And if ACE Team gets a little more money and a little more time for their next game, that just might be the one that blows us all away.
Zeno Clash: Ultimate Edition. Publisher: Atlus Games. Developer: ACE Team. Release Date: May 5, 2010. Platform: Xbox Live Arcade. ESRB: Teen. ESRB Descriptors: Blood and Gore, Mild Suggestive Themes Violence. To purchase, click here.