Review: Zeno Clash

John Funk | 28 Apr 2009 09:00
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I almost didn't give Zeno Clash a chance.

The way the game started off - with an obvious, ham-fisted tutorial "dream sequence" that taught me how to punch things - pushed some of my personal buttons, but it was more than that: To put it simply, the game was just weird. The character designs were strange, the landscapes were stranger, and it felt like a beat-em-up brawler but played like an FPS. It was a "Perfect Storm" combination; a game so bizarre and unfamiliar, that initially felt so unpolished ... it almost turned me off it right then and there. But no, I shrugged it off, and told myself I'd give it an hour or two to see if it grew on me.

I'm glad I did. That isn't to say my first impressions of Zeno Clash were incorrect: It is a brawler that plays like an FPS, it isn't all that polished, and it is very, very weird. Of course, that doesn't make it bad, it just makes it ... well, odd.

Zeno Clash puts the players in the (proverbial) shoes of Ghat, a young man who has killed his Father-Mother - a ten-foot-tall hermaphroditic bird-person-thing with glowing, bulbous yellow eyes - and must flee the wrath of his dozens of brothers and sisters. No, that's not a spoiler; that's the beginning of the game. The plot alternates between the present - with Ghat and his companion Deadra fleeing their pursuers - and the past, showing the events that led up to Ghat's assassination of his parent.

As you might have already picked up from the very existence of a "ten-foot-tall hermaphroditic bird-person-thing," the world of Zeno Clash is not one most gamers will be used to. It's a fantasy world through and through - not the standard "High Fantasy" world of Tolkien with elves, orcs, and dragons, but a land that is truly fantastic in the literal sense of the word.

I've been trying to figure out how to describe the bizarre aesthetic of Zeno Clash since I first played the game, and I still haven't figured out how to do it. The closest I've come is something like "a prehistoric version of Lorne Lanning's Oddworld a la Tim Burton," but even that doesn't do the game justice. While all vaguely humanoid, the characters in Zeno Clash are almost all recognizably not human, with most possessing some sort of anthropomorphized animal features. There are bird-men, there are pig-men, and then there are people who I'm not sure what they are, except they're all varying degrees of ugly. Honestly, words don't do the atmosphere and aesthetic sense of Zeno Clash the justice it deserves.

So, you're in this strange and unique fantasy world, filled with strange and unique monsters and characters. You better have some strange and unique weaponry to deal with them, right? While there are guns in Zeno Clash, they're just as primitive as the rest of the world, and feel kind of underpowered. The gunplay in Zeno Clash tends to be repetitive and uninspired, with your weapons getting the most use against countless waves of identical wildlife. For the most part, it's fairly dull, with the notable exceptions being a pair of boss battles. Without spoiling things, here are two words: "squirrel bombs."

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