|System: X360, PC||Review Rating Legend|
|Dev: ACE Team||1.0 - 1.9 = Avoid||4.0 - 4.4 = Great|
|Pub: Atlus||2.0 - 2.4 = Poor||4.5 - 4.9 = Must Buy|
|Release: May 5, 2010||2.5 - 2.9 = Average||5.0 = The Best|
|Players: 1||3.0 - 3.4 = Fair|
|ESRB Rating: Teen||3.5 - 3.9 = Good|
by Steve Haske
When Zeno Clash made its PC debut last year, it garnered a lot of attention and praise for its unqiue gameplay mechanics as well as its bizarre aesthetic. Upon release, the game became an indie darling, with no shortage of accolades over this one-of-a-kind first-person brawler. I'll admit that the game isn't like anything you've probably seen before, but that sure as hell doesn't give it an automatic pass. In fact, at the risk of swimming against a pretty widespread critical tide, I'm going to say this: don't believe the hype. Zeno Clash is a boring, repetitive, terrible game that does its best to wow you with style, hoping you don't notice its lack of substance.
The game throws you into the action in media res, as Ghat, the protagonist, has just killed a spindly, grotesque creature known as Father-Mother, the leader of a tribe of equally hideous abominations (Father-Mother's children). Ghat, too, is an offspring of this freak of nature, but has betrayed the family (and committed pat-matricide) for reasons that aren't explained until later. After a brief, semi-nonsensical tutorial from a strange, creepy-looking ghost, you start the brawling that makes up 90 percent of the game in earnest, squaring off against a set of freakshow combatants (your siblings, actually) that are out for your blood. From then on, Ghat and his friend (or lover, or whatever) Deadra are considered pariahs to the clan, and are forced to take refuge in the forest outside the village they have now forsaken.
The set-up doesn't really sound weird on paper, but play this game for more than five minutes and you'll see that not only is the narrative opaque and the presentation a bit obscure, but the world and its inhabitants are deformed, savage, and quite unpleasant to gaze upon. This isn't because the graphics are bad-quite the opposite, actually, since the game uses Valve's Source engine-but because this horrific style is actually what the developers were going for. If you tossed the aesthetic essences of Lewis Carroll (which would be terrifying enough on its own), Heavy Metal, Dali, and internet cartoons like Salad Fingers or Strindberg and Helium in a blender, gave its contents to Pixar and told them to make something, the result might look something like Zeno Clash.
Even the relatively 'normal' looking Ghat, a lean, Borderlands-eqsue cross between Josh Duhamel and Trent Reznor-with mange-isn't exactly sporting a good look (and Deadra has horns, most of the time, that make her look like an 80's Amazonian reject from Ico). Needless to say, rarely have I come across a game with art direction as disturbing as Zeno Clash's, which probably won't endear you to the game much, unless you really enjoy viewing hideous art.
As bad as the surreal landscapes and hard-to-look-at character designs are, though, aesthetics are the least of Zeno Clash's problems. The game is essentially a first-person brawler-an innovative idea that you seldom see-but it's not a very deep one. Ghat has regular and hard attacks, as well as bum-rush moves you can use while sprinting, the ability to block or evade, and limited use of firearms, but the combat starts shallow and doesn't really get much deeper than that. A seasoned player will be able to deflect attacks from enemies, allowing you to counter with a massive strike, but there's little to keep the combat fresh or interesting, making most fistfights a slog to get through. The small assortment of primitive-looking firearms Ghat can use are also more or less one-offs-if you find them in a certain section of the game you can use 'em, but don't expect an arsenal on your person-each new level sets you back with just your fists, the focal point of the game.