The key to magic, as any magician might tell you, is misdirection. Don't let the audience look too closely for too long and you can get away with nearly anything. ACE Team's 2009 brawler, Zeno Clash, was magic. An illusion. The team created an entire world made out of the videogame equivalents of spit and cardboard, slung together on an embarrassingly small budget, but it worked because the developer never let you look too closely for too long.
On paper, Zeno Clash II is a straight upgrade over its predecessor. It's bigger, brighter, and more fleshed out. The tight, linear alleys and pathways of the original have been replaced with free-roam hubs that span forests, plains and entire city blocks. The combat has been bolstered with a handful of new special attacks, recruitable NPCs and a simplistic leveling system. The narrative is more complex, with a ludicrously ambitious second act that dwarfs the first game in terms of scope. There's also two-player co-op. "More," is the by-word here. More characters, more enemies, more moves, more locations and more twists, but Zeno Clash 2 promises more than it can deliver.
Zeno Clash ended with surly protagonist, Ghat, subduing his child-stealing adoptive parent - a giant hermaphrodite bird creature called Father/Mother - with the aid of an ancient golem he found at the ends of the earth. In the opening scenes of Zeno Clash II, it's revealed that the golem has set about bringing "civilization" to Ghat's people in the form of laws, uniformed enforcers and jails, all of which are foreign concepts to the primitive tribal society.
Initially, Ghat is recruited by his adoptive sister, Rimat - who also serves as the game's second playable character - to break Father/Mother out of jail, but it's his natural anti-authoritarian streak that drives his actions for the majority of the game. The conflict between order and chaos is the game's central theme, and to its credit, it doesn't favor one side over the other as most fiction tends to. The golem is smug and condescending, but also driven by a genuine desire to improve the lives of Ghat's people, while Ghat's heroism is driven mostly by self-interest. He is, at heart, violent and primitive. This is carried to its logical extreme in the second and third acts, with a series of clever twists that raise the story's stakes while maintaining the core character conflicts.
Unfortunately, while Zeno Clash managed to hide its occasionally sloppy writing behind narrative minimalism, it's on full display in Zeno Clash II. The game's dialogue shows signs of having gone through the translation mangler, with some lines making the jump from clunky to outright gibberish. The voice acting is similarly flawed. While the golem's deadpan delivery fits his character, it makes Ghat and Rimat sound like they're on tranquilizers for considerable stretches of the game. The fact both characters pronounce the word "golem" differently, even while talking to each other, only makes their conversations more surreal.
"Surreal," is also the perfect descriptor for the game's art direction. Zeno Clash II looks weird. Really weird. Think Wizard of Oz by way of Hieronymus Bosch. The approach works. It isn't always beautiful - some shoddy texture work betrays the game's low-budget origins - but it's never boring. Even as the gameplay dries up and the narrative begins to drag, Zeno Clash II's art will keep you playing. Halesdom, the game's only major city, is a mix of ramshackle huts and oddly angled houses clustered around a series of towers that toe the line between architecture and sculpture. Things get more fantastic as you move further abroad. The game's maps are essentially open air art galleries. Each area is dotted with landmarks that serve no purpose but to provoke questions. Who built the giant marble hands that seem to be holding up the mountains in the distance? Why is there a giant harp here? Who? What? Why? The game answers some of these questions, but for the most part it relies on the same answer we got in the first Zeno Clash; Why? Because, that's why - Shut up and explore this giant tower made of Jenga Blocks.
The open structure encourages exploration, but it also serves to highlight how small and cramped the game world actually is. The journey to the end of the world that took hours in the first game now only takes about five minutes on foot, and the contrivances ACE Team uses to keep you in the relatively small maps are aggravating. Ghat might be much happier with his lot if he mastered the art of climbing knee-high walls. The way the game blocks your progress is similarly contrived. Some obstacles require one of a handful of abilities to pass, but others simply randomly open as you progress through the game.
The world's inhabitants are as strange as its environs. Most are humanoid, but not human. Cow people, Wookies with wings, talking lizards, lobster men, gangly bird monsters, two-headed monkeys riding giant acid-spewing turkeys; Ghat meets them all. Unfortunately, he rarely talks to them, preferring instead to let his fists do the conversing.