I am always excited and thrilled when a game comes around that promises a truly unique experience. A graphical style that paints a wonderful world; a narrative with exciting twists and turns; a gameplay style that you’ve never seen before and want to get more out of once everything is said and done. It’s bad enough that a lot of the new games we get these days are the same FPS romps through valleys and valleys of brown, with so much muscle-memory button mashing that the mind just flies on autopilot while you take down whatever crazy-ass threat is presented to you. Zeno Clash promised all of those things and more with its promotional material, and crafted that as its largest selling point. And for the most part, it delivered.
But I’m not sure if it did all of that different stuff right.
Let’s get the good out of the way first; there are points in the game that are simply fun to play. Zeno Clash is a first-person brawler. It’s kinda like taking the guns out of a first-person shooter, and expanding on that whole karate chop thing from GoldenEye 007 and making most of your game based on that. The hand-to-hand combat is fun and furious. Strong and weak attacks are pinned to the left and right triggers, respectively, with another button for blocking. There’s a lot to this system; blocking is one thing, but managing to dodge or, at best, parry an attack is all about Punch-Out-like timing. Several combos, several big moves, and lots of fellas to knock out. The unarmed combat is where the game shines the greatest, and if we were to take everything else about this game away, we could have a total winner in my book.
Sadly, you can’t have Thanksgiving dinner without Crazy Great Uncle Steve having war flashbacks in the middle of Grace, dive-bombing onto the table to avoid that gunfire that grazed his left buttock, and getting gravy, mashed potatoes and taco salad all over your Sunday best. There is a lot that simply doesn’t work in this game. First and foremost is the guns. There shouldn’t be any. They are clunky, reload slowly and often, and get in the way of the funner fist-fighting.
There are too many times when guns are forced upon you in order to hit targets that are too far away to punch. One battle in particular—and this is the part where the game really fell apart for me—was against a boss who situated himself on top of this dinosaur…thing, chucked down a gun and said “Use that to fight me.” “OK,” I thought to myself. “The Meta Knight route. Fair enough.” So, I grabbed the gun, and started trying to aim at and shoot the boss, who was now this very small black target that was really hard to hit, while the dinosaur… skull… thing was bobbing its head up and down. And to top it all off, the boss was throwing SQUIRRELS WITH DYNAMITE STRAPPED TO THEIR BACKS to the ground to distract me. To disarm them, I had to kick the little scamps, but the damn things move way faster than the slow kick-attack can handle. Not only that, but every few explosions, my gun would be knocked out of my hands and completely lost to me; a brown gun blending into a brown floor, with no arrow popping up to tell me where it was. It was simple madness. I just want to punch a guy in the face. Why do I have to throw such a fun concept aside to tinker with some of the worst FPSing I’ve seen in a game in a long time?
Even worse than that are the non-humanoid creatures thrown at you way too often. Odd-looking dog-, bee- and…duck-like creatures swagger in to annoy you, and to take a chip of your health away as they jump across half the map to bite your apparently delicious flesh. I just want to beat up some funny-looking men with bird heads!
Oh, right. Let’s talk about the art design. Sure, Zeno Clash has a unique, kinda painting-like feel to it. It just sucks that every single character looks absolutely hilarious. The main hero looks like he has sharpie marker scribbled across his face. The main heroine looks like she was born in the wrong era (white chicks with Afros are NOT cool, man!), and the others just all look deformed and sickly. It may be my dislike of the graphics engine, though; the slide-in portraits of your character and your foes before every battle are a really cool touch, and they look very well done. I wish the rest of the game looked as good as those.
I should mention that if you’re coming for a thrilling narrative, look far, far away. I usually discuss story in my reviews before anything else, but what we’re offered here is just hilariously bland. The story begins in medias res with the main character, Gant, on the run with his random lady friend, Deadra, after Gant murdered his mother…bird…man…thing figure, cleverly named Father-Mother. Chased by his brothers and sisters, Gant and Deadra run to the ends of the world of Zenozoik for…safety, I guess. It’s just a boring mess. The pacing is weird, alternating between the present, and Gant’s journey toward killing (Sigh.) Father-Mother, and some of the story elements are just season-three-of-Heroes-level dumb. Why are the Cornad of the Free insane? …Because! I’m supposed to feel sorry for a…mushroom…like…thing (UGH.) whose meaning in life is to walk in a straight line, but can’t anymore ’cause there’s a rock in its way? WHAT. The voice acting is as laughable as the plot. But that’s OK. Just as long as I gots me some faces to punch.
I think for what it’s worth, it cannot hurt to take a peak at what Zeno Clash has to offer, if the core fighting mechanics interest you at all. That part of the game is seriously fun. In addition to the Story Campaign, there’s a Challenge Mode with seven towers full of fighting once the story putters out. Xbox Live co-op between two players is a nice touch, as well. It’s everything else that really tears away at the value of this title. $15 is a bit steep, especially when you have titles like Shadow Complex and Braid setting the standard for XBLA titles of that price. Still, if this is what developer ACE Team can come up with for their first full-on release, I’d go ahead and keep an eye on them. There was a lot of potential with this title; there’s just too much fat sliding out of the shirt to keep it from being really attractive.
Fuck. It’s swimsuit season again, isn’t it?
A code to download this game was suppled by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Thanks, Altus!