Zeno Clash came in 2009 to a little cult hype. It was a surprisingly unique title from Chilean developer ACE Team, which was more first person brawler than shooter; with quirky characters and an acid-trip world, Zeno Clash was notable not for its polish or fidelity so much as for its quirkiness. Now it’s 2013, and the Chileans are back with the aptly named Zeno Clash 2, published by Atlus.
Skipping the Source engine for the slightly more modern Unreal Engine 3, Zeno Clash is passably beautiful in terms of the graphical fidelity – carried almost entirely by style and art. This is a game completely without substance, and what I mean by that is that Zeno Clash 2 is like punching your way through an interactive art gallery. Reviewing Zeno Clash 2 feels a bit like critiquing a Chilean’s acid trip… it feels like none of my business.
Zeno Clash 2 is a little political, and a lot wacky. I’m not saying there’s a dark and boding subtext here that I’m going to explore, because the truth is that if there is a message, it’s been lost on me. This isn’t a game with heavy exposition, and the dialogue is more whimsical than it is, I believe, allegorical. If there’s a political message within this title, I believe its one the creators decided to hold close to their hearts rather than connoting it within any overt symbolism.
I run the risk of implying there’s more depth to Zeno Clash 2 than there actually is: there isn’t. It has two things going for it – namely the combat system and style or variety of set pieces. Once again, this is a first person brawler. You attack primarily with your fists, using the right and left mouse clicks for right and left attacks, or both together for a more powerful attack. There’s an extensive array of combos, too, by mixing the left and right buttons, with sprinting and long-holding the respective click. The combat system is much more extensive than the game demands, but a substantial amount of effort has gone into choice as it pertains to the dynamic of combat.
You play as either Ghat, or his sister. If you’re playing in coop over the internet, you pick one character each. If you’re playing single player, however, you have the choice to bring out one or more of your allies (including Ghat’s sister) to join you as non playable NPC’s. This is all orchestrated by a rather stylish ‘us vs them’ prompt, allowing you to pick who you want to fight from a series of avatars. The story revolves around the aforementioned mouth-less man, who wished to impose his jurisdiction on the people of this enigmatic game-world. He’s locked away the prequels Father-Mother character, who we learn ‘adopted’ Ghat and other human-esque characters, for the crime of kidnapping. Having broken Father-Mother out of jail, it’s your job to take on this masked-maniac by punching shit in the face until the credits roll. It’s really as simple as that.
The story is largely nonsensical, but it just about manages to pull itself off. The game is full of whimsy, and although in places it feels a little cheap and tacky, you can easily overlook some of these problems if you’re into what the games about. It has the charm of a Miyazaki film, with characters to match. Characters are indeed one of the games most compelling features. There are countless varied and well designed NPC’s, and I don’t think I’ve seen as many creative and original character designs in one game – Zeno Clash 2 has more unique NPCs than I’ve ever seen before, each of them suitable for their own cartoon or Del Toro film. The sets, too, follow the same principle: they are colourful, creative, with little hints of cultural heritage here and there.
The voice acting in Zeno Clash 2 is poor, although charming. It’s easy to see the actors are reading straight from paper into microphones, but their stale and somewhat zoney delivery matches the strange and incoherent dialogue. In this case, two wrongs make a right. Clash 2 makes no effort to draw you into the game, and to refer to my original analogy, it feels a little bit like you’re crashing somebody else’s thematic party. You’re not sure what the theme is, or who these people are, but you know you’re not on the same wavelength as them. It’s not unplayable, though, since the visceral nature of what you need to do rather than why, with the waypoints and level structure, make it easy to determine exactly how to progress.
Levels are stylistically broad, and there are even areas of wasteland between the worlds major cities. This isn’t an open world game by any means, but the world is quite large and versatile, and there’s actually plenty to see. The whole thing has an Alice in Wonderland sort of vibe to it, with each area reminiscent of a certain theme or style. A forest, for example, will feature its own unique wildlife and quirky hominid characters. The towns and cities are filled with familiar and strange faces, and the wastelands patrolled by dome-helmeted bandits. To put it quite simply, the differences between playable areas are akin to areas in an MMO and all that this entails.
The game world has a lot of flavor, and every NPC type even comes equipped with its own accent or voice – some decidedly indecipherable. When you get bored of punching people, you can pick up one of the many different weapons on the map, too. There are guns, which come in tactically useful at times. These are usually taken off enemies who drop them when you’re punching them, and come with a finite amount of ammunition before you toss them away or until it breaks from bashing it against someones head. There are melee weapons too, which suffer the same untimely death after too much use. You can also unlock an array of alternative special attacks, like skill grenades, a chain whip, and a bracelet which charges using sunlight (even reflected off the moon at night), which can be used to destroy gates stopping you from progressing.
There’s actually a substantial amount to Zeno Clash 2, but it’s tempting to brush it all aside and get caught up in poor voice acting and, perhaps, what might be considered a self serving and alienating style and game world. That would be doing the £14.99 title an injustice, though, because what it lacks in clarity it more than makes up for in charm. If you’re into brawlers, whimsy, and a unique and stylized game world, then this title might just be for you – expect polish, coherence, and exposition, though, and you’ll be sorely disappointed. Still, there’s a hell of a lot here for £14.99, and if you treat it like a violent romp through an art gallery with some quirky dialogue here and there, you’ll probably fit right in. Say hi to Chihiro and The White Rabbit for me, unless you’re too busy whiting out on the pavement.