It could be argued that the original Zeno Clash never should have made it to market. Born out of the Source mod scene, its gameplay took the first-person shooter engine and retuned it for melee combat, a strategy that’s rarely met with success. It’s surrealistic art style brazenly thumbed its nose at overused, mass-market friendly settings filled with elves, space marines, and dude-bros in camo with assault rifles. It was a fantasy boxing simulator spliced Through the Looking Glass with the works of Salvador Dali. Yes, Zeno Clash was the sort of title hardcore gamers clamor for: New, bold, and wholly original. Now, four years later, Zeno Clash is back, thanks to the help of Atlus, famed publisher of strange JRPGs, and it is bigger, bolder, and more beautifully original than ever.
Zeno Clash II is a direct sequel to the original first-person puncher and picks up shortly after Ghat’s return from the End of the World with the Golem and the reveal of Father-Mother’s horrible secret. The sequel’s opening has Golem taking a guiding role to the city of Halstedom, teaching the barbaric inhabitants new terms such as “law,” “criminal," and “jail". These concepts don’t sit well with many of the Zenos, including the notoriously rebellious Ghat. Spurred to action by his sister, Ghat begins a new journey to reunite the family of Father-Mother, break her out of jail, and discover the means to fight the Golem at the upcoming trial. Along the way, he’ll face-punch the many unique people and critters inhabiting the world of Zenoziok while trying to stay one step ahead of his nemesis in an effort to stave off civilization. Yes, really.
While Zeno Clash II’s tutorial does its best to catch players up on the events that transpired during the first game, those interested in the plot will certainly want to brush up on the original title in preparation. It’s not that the plot of the first game was particularly hard to follow, but the alien concepts, terms, and unique story may make it difficult to comprehend. Still, when you sign up for Zeno Clash, you’re diving headlong into strange end anyway. Even returning veterans confortable with the masked, deformed, and/or anthropomorphic inhabitants of Zenozoik with find their concepts of the world shaken to the core by revelations at the beginning of the game’s third act. And then the two-headed monkeys riding fire-breathing vultures show up. Again, yes, really.
Unlike other titles that delve into strange, otherworldly realms, Zeno Clash plays it’s bizarre setting and story straight, and to great effect, never devolving into horror or self-parody. The fact that the details of your trip through this Wonderland are delivered flatly by its gruff inhabitants too primitive to bother with questions such as “Why?” lends an air of authenticity to the odd proceedings most creators would never even attempt. As with Zeno Clash’s other paradigm shattering aspects, such as art and gameplay, developer ACE Team not only beats the odds, but succeeds far beyond imagination. This is a fresh, new story you’re not likely to forget.
Speaking of shaking up concepts to their core, Zeno Clash II reevaluates every aspect of the original’s gameplay and crafts a much more expansive experience, both in terms of mechanics and gameflow. Gone are the linear levels of the original as players are now free to wander the weird, wild world at will, complete with multiple objectives and secondary tasks, and brought to life with a dynamic day/night cycle. Ghat’s face-punching controls have been retooled to put left and right hands on their respective triggers and augmented with an extensive combo system, including grabs and throws, similar to an arcade fighting game. Character stats can now be upgraded RPG-style by finding hidden skill totems. The pebble shooting firearms cobbled out of bits of bone and wood return, but eschew reloading in favor of finite ammunition cementing them as a useful but disposable tool. Finally, a selection of new secondary weapons, including a mortar that must be fired using the position of the sun or moon and a life tether that binds two targets’ physical reactions together, join the skull bombs of old. Larger fights allow you to call allies into battle resulting in some truly spectacular brawls, particularly if you happen upon two conflicting factions, and a second player can join you at any time through the co-op friendly campaign. No aspect of the original has been left untouched and the resultant sequel is a much larger, more immersive, more satisfying game.
What hasn’t been changed is Zeno Clash’s seemingly insatiable appetite for the weird. A move to the Unreal engine has brought the impossible creatures and improbable architecture of Zenozoik to a whole new level with more detailed character models, lighting, and some fantastic use of depth-of-field effects. Quad-breasted rat ladies have never looked so good! Environmental textures look a little flat, but you’ll hardly notice as you marvel at the 20ft. tall bubble-blowing plants or struggle to sock a guinea pig-faced midget in his oversized nose. All of the locations from the original game make a return appearance and are augmented by and equal number of new ones. Far from a simple reuse of assets, the levels featuring the city of Halstedom and it’s surrounding lands have been retooled to fit the new sandbox style gameplay. Moreover, bringing back those original sets makes the Zeno’s unique world feel that much more real, a fact players will certainly appreciate once gaining access to some of Zenozoik’s formerly forbidden areas. Best of all, these visuals are accompanied by an outstanding and strangely appropriate soundtrack. From the drum pounding main theme to the ethereal choir of the final confrontation, Zeno Clash’s music is perfect.
Also worthy of note is Zeno Clash’s approach to violence. In an era where even Teen rated games see players sending literally hundreds of foes into the afterlife, Zeno Clash’s combat opts for a comic book inspired knockout to end fights. On the rare occasions that death does come knocking for a character, it usually does so by means of a cutscene and is a result of said character’s own obstinance. While a game dedicated to popping folks in the kisser can hardly be considered nonviolent, it is refreshing to see one where the violence is nonlethal.
Much like its predecessor, Zeno Clash II probably shouldn’t exist in the gaming market today. In an industry ruled by bloated marketing budgets and the need to play it safe, both in terms of content and mechanics, Zeno Clash II delivers a triple-A, 8-10 hour action-adventure the likes of which you’ve never experienced before for the bargain price of $20. Yup, $20. Even Zeno Clash II’s price tag defies explanation! Everything about his game is fresh, original, and unforgettable. From its humble beginnings as a Half-Life mod to this latest iteration, Zeno Clash has compromised none of its punk rock aesthetic, original gameplay, or commitment to quality. Here’s hoping the folks at ACE Team continue to defy the odds and brings us many more Zeno Clashes in the future.
Zeno Clash II is available now for Windows PCs and is coming soon to Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 for $20. It has been rated T for teen by the ESRB for “Violence, Blood, Partial Nudity, Mild Language, and Use of Alcohol”. Reviewed on Windows 7 PC.
Reviewer Rating: 5/5 – 5 Out of 5 Punches to Giant Crab Face