Wot I Think: Zeno Clash 2

By Nathan Grayson on May 1st, 2013 at 11:00 am.

Zeno Clash 2 is the sequel I always wished would come to fruition, but never dared hope for. I mean, if you look at the Call of Duties or even Grand Theft Autos of the world, there’s no real intrigue amongst all the announcement glitz and glamour. We already know roughly what we’re in for. But the original Zeno Clash opened this swirling, cream-colored Pandora’s Box of possibility, only to slam it shut – nearly taking our fingertips in the process – after a mere few hours. It was so weird and alien and gleefully unafraid to just do its own thing. But in the modern gaming world, that also often translates to “it’ll sell 12 copies and confuse even typically adventurous gamers and live on only in the hearts of its most fervent disciples.” Not usually the stuff sequels are made of. Against all odds, however, Zeno Clash did quite well for itself, and Zeno Clash 2 was born. But is the first-person brawling oddity all it’s thwacked (and biffed and zotted) up to be? Here’s wot I think.

Well, at least you can still punch bird people.

I say that because, beyond occasional birdbrained beak biffing, it seems like ACE Team went out of its way to abandon a worrisome amount of what made the original Zeno Clash great. Even some of the sequel’s trademark writhing, wriggling bubblegum nightmare insanity feels phoned-in. It’s not a disaster by any means, even managing to be quite sublimely exhilarating and gorgeous in places. But I’ll be honest: I was expecting far, far better.

I can, however, tell you why ACE’s track record is now sporting a gunk-encrusted shiner: scope. The original Zeno Clash was, in large part, defined by its limitations – linearity, arenas that could only hold a few enemies comfortably, a short run time, etc – and those forced the game’s manic fever vision to stay within some boundaries. It feels strange to say this of a sequel that clearly reaped the rewards of its predecessor’s success, but Zeno Clash 2 isn’t so fortunate. It’s big and epic and (sorta) open world and RPG-ish and full of colorful whatsits to see, collect, and/or punch in the vague semblance of a face.

There is no intimacy. There is no focus. There is significantly less soul.

I think we should start with the punching. Let’s start with the punching. At heart, it’s still the oh-so-gratifying brand of rock ‘em sock ‘em Corwids that propelled the first game to such great heights, but with tons of complicating factors heaped on top. Remember that annoying enemy flood of a climactic confrontation in the original? If not, here’s what you need to know: it was like trying to box with a trash can on your head while surrounded by people thwacking you with giant metal spoons. Fact is, first-person’s not ideally suited for dealing with crowds – especially when enemies have a tendency to stick to your back like vengeful toddlers. So Zeno Clash’s closing moments were exceedingly frustrating, and by extension, so is nearly all of Zeno Clash 2.

On plenty of occasions, I’d find my groove with one or two grotesque avian aliens – calmly dodging milliseconds before certain facial rearrangement and countering with vicious hooks – only for an avalanche of strikes to rain down on the back of my head. Then my character would get trapped in a stumble or fall-down animation, and I’d realize “Hah, silly me. I can’t fight these definitely-not-people in this game about fighting.” In many cases, my fists of fury quickly gave way to my feet of measured timidity, by which I mean I was forced to run away until I could briefly turn, land a few solid hits on a foe that got separated from the rest of the pack, and then repeat the pattern.

Oh, and that’s not even factoring in easily confused lock-on targeting, which bounces between enemies with all the grace of an amorphous pig man who resembles a giant wrinkled thumb or a living piece of abstract art with a tooth-spattered painting palette for a lower jaw. (Now go ahead and guess which one of those is a real Zeno Clash 2 character. Hint: the answer’s both.) Cool new items like a gauntlet that allows you to “link” two enemies – temporarily sending all damage inflicted on one to the other as well – are practically wasted on the system, which is clearly designed for one-on-one fisticuffs. If nothing else, lock-on can be disabled with a quick tap of the Q key, but the alternative is wonky and imprecise – especially in large crowds, which is exactly where items like the link gauntlet are most useful.

Granted, I wasn’t always outnumbered and fleeing with half the half-animal, half-sorta-man kingdom on my tail. In most (non-open-world-based/random) larger scraps, I could choose a couple AI companions to fight by my side. Unfortunately, however, most tended to be pretty terrible, regardless of the required “leadership” skill level needed to recruit them. At best, Zeno Clash 2′s AI partners provided a decent distraction, giving me an extra minute or two to thin the mob before it caught my scent. Then my robo-pals would die, throw down a smoke bomb to signal that they’d be “healing” for the next couple battles, and leave me to slowly, methodically clean up the mess.

(Here I must note that co-op is also an option. However, I wasn’t able to find anyone to play with over the weekend, so I’m going to try it out this week now that people can actually, er, buy the game.)

Which is not to call Zeno Clash 2′s combat entirely bad. Not by any means. It just feels at odds with the scenarios you’re expected to solve with it. So instead of using it to its fullest potential, you’re forced to flee and scuttle and cope. Again, however, the fundamentals of combat are glorious, and when the game sticks to its bobbing, weaving bread-and-butter, there’s some truly exhilarating fun to be had. Hits land with furious impact, often sending baddies crashing into walls, the ground, the significantly further away ground (read: off cliffs), and each other. Dodge and block timing, meanwhile, is usually buttery smooth, adding another helping of intoxicating tangibility to the package. Even some of the new options are great, for instance the ability to quickly hold down both mouse buttons to launch a spin counter kick at foes directly behind you. Put simply, adrenaline courses through these controls. I’m surprised my mouse and keyboard aren’t riddled with tiny craters after the way my fingers repeatedly crashed down on them.

But what of the not-so-punchy bits, which – admittedly – tend to function less as reprieves as more as psychedelic “oooo, pretty colors” funnels into more punching? Well, obviously, there’s the open (AIRQUOTES) world, which is really more a series of static, semi-linear environments that you can freely travel between when not in the middle of a story segment. Given that the original Zeno Clash’s utterly bonkers civilization was just begging to be explored, you’d figure that Zeno 2′s would totally steal the show. Sadly, however, you’d be wrong. For all its soaring vistas, swirls of painterly beauty, and towering monoliths of astounding madness, Zeno Clash 2 doesn’t let you go terribly far off the beaten path. Sure, I found plenty of little side routes, but they almost always dead-ended with posts that awarded a skill point, and that was that.

Also, that’s the only way to unlock skill points, which are rather essential unless you want your punches to be tickling enemies to death by the game’s end. So the priority in world design was hiding skill posts ever so slightly out of the way, and it shows. Exploration, then, isn’t the point. Zeno Clash 2′s world is still a thing of twisted, sometimes even nauseating beauty, but at the end of the day, it’s about looking, not touching.

But what Zeno Clash 2 lacks in actual real estate, it makes up for with tremendous scope, scale, and variety of locales. Really, everything just feels bigger and more momentous this time around. Dizzyingly tall structures dot almost every landscape, whether they’re buildings or mountains or disembodied limbs. Colors leap and dance, music thrums and drones, and sometimes there are giant bubbles in the air – like, the kind from a bathtub or a toy wand – for no reason. It is, if nothing else, an absolute wonder to behold – a fusion of epic and bizarroweird that handily outstrips even the likes of Morrowind, visually.

That does, however, add fuel to the fire of an unforeseen issue: The original Zeno Clash was a tale of family ties torn and frayed to the point of breaking, but the sequel mostly focuses on a continent-trotting quest to bring down Golem – a nigh-omniscient, justice-driven force who decided to reshape society in his own image after the first game – once and for all. EPIC HERO’S JOURNEY KINDA YEAH, in other words. Thing is, while the first Zeno Clash had its epic moments, it thrived on spinning a fairly intimate yarn in an otherwise mysterious world. It did an excellent job of exploring a couple bizarro cultures – the forest-dwelling, seemingly psychotic Corwids and main character Ghat’s family, mostly – in impressive amounts of detail while leaving the rest to our imaginations. More than that, though, it made those cultures feel real, believable, and – on some strange level – even relatable.

Zeno Clash 2, on the other hand, places all except its central journey miles down on the priority totem pole. So it’s all a big blur. You visit tens of locales and meet heaps of colorful characters, but you don’t really get to know anyone. There’s no “Hmmmm” moments that rival the Corwids or Golem’s cryptic musings. Standbys like Deadra return, but mainly as tools to be used in battle – not characters. Really, the whole Zeno gang’s back. It’s just not as interesting anymore. Don’t get me wrong: some interesting themes and characters do pop up, especially toward the end. But on the whole, the setting doesn’t feel anywhere near as rich as it once did – less a place and more a gorgeously painted cardboard backdrop.

As a result of the large, sometimes lifeless world, pacing also suffers. Whether it’s the plot suddenly suggesting some menial series of errands after a big, important showdown or random enemies chipping away at your last bits of health after you’ve come away from, er, a big, important showdown, the overall effect is jarring. Let’s put it this way: I got killed by thrown pebbles and flies multiple times. Yes, five-or-six-strong hordes of baddies did me in more often than not, but still: flies! They’d just show up and buzz in my ear – occasionally taking a slow, wobbly charge at my noggin – until I died. I understand wanting to populate locations with wildlife, but when it largely exists to annoy instead of create interesting combat scenarios (for assistance, see: Far Cry 3′s Big Book Of Doing It Right), it might as well not exist at all.

Much as it pains me to say it, it pained me to experience it more, so: Zeno Clash 2 is also riddled with an alarming number of bugs and glitches. Most annoyingly, effects would essentially “burn in” to my image – sort of like with old plasma TVs, but thankfully not permanently – and I’d have to fiddle with settings to make them go away. I also came across slowdown, tons of AI issues, bits where events failed to trigger, and collision detection problems.

Underneath Zeno Clash 2′s heaving gut of flaws, there’s still remnants of the original’s (also flawed, but significantly less so) brilliance. Even without quite as much substance, it’s still a weird, weird place, and when I wasn’t rocking and socking, I was gawking. The combat system, meanwhile, is better than ever, even if some of the battles aren’t. I think it’s fair to say that some really great ingredients got stirred into a toxic stew, and the end result isn’t something I can safely recommend to everyone. It’s still a tremendously wonderful, original world, and I really hope ACE Team decides to revisit it – either with a better eye for grandiose scale or something more focused – in the future. For now, though, calling Zeno Clash 2 “uneven” would be a charitable assessment. Le sigh.

But at least you can still punch bird people.

Zeno Clash 2 is out on Steam right now.

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53 Comments »

  1. FurryLippedSquid says:

    Aw.

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  2. RobinOttens says:

    Darn.

    I’ll probably end up buying it anyway, if not for the shiny art, then for the hope that Ace Team gets to take another (better) jab at it in the future.

    But still, sad to see this game not living up to it’s potential.

  3. Jerakal says:

    Disappointing. Well, I preordered it out of love for the first game, and the hopes that the ACE team would produce some more amazing product. So I’ll give it a go later today. But this doesn’t leave me with high hopes.

    • Snidesworth says:

      I think I’ll wait till it’s been patched up a bit. Pre-ordered out of love for the original as well, but I holding off till everything is working properly is for the best.

  4. Astatine says:

    Well, silly old me had already gone “Squeal! More Zeno Clash!” and pre-purchased. :-)

    I’ll just try to forget I read this and have fun, eh?

    If I find I’m complaining too, I’ll take Nathan’s future reviews at face value.
    If I love it and find no flaws, I’ll apply a… “filter” to his words ;)

    • Feferuco says:

      I still have my hopes up. I don’t recall having issues with combat on the first one and I did all of those extra challenges. They were hard yes but not because of some inherent flaw in the game. So I’ll just assume Nathan kinda sucks at first person punching.

      Similarly, what he said about the open world didn’t put me off. Lots of games, even open world games, are structured around hiding stuff. That’s used to get people to explore. From the sound of it, it felt like some Legend of Zelda open world and I’m pretty okay with that.

      • Snidesworth says:

        I think it’s more that he was looking for intense, one on one fights, while for me Zeno Clash was at its best when I was up against overwhelming numbers and I had to play evasively and predict that which I couldn’t see. It was about learning to expect enemy attacks, fight to knock down multiple foes or separate them in order to create openings where I could isolate someone and batter their face in. The weapons fed into that. They were there to help you manage whatever wave of mooks you were fighting, picking one off or bowling a few over so you could then wade in with fist and foot.

        • Feferuco says:

          Yeah, that’s what I was suspecting, that he was trying to approach it like first person Street Fighter when the game works a lot better if you try to manage enemies and weapons, like Streets of Rage.

          • ichtyander says:

            I always saw the first Xeno Clash as a first person Cadillacs & Dinosaurs (seeing as the original comics are called Xenozoic Tales, and I also love the C&D arcade game).

      • eclipse mattaru says:

        Agreed.

        Outside of the bugs and glitches, which are hard to dispute and will have me wait for a little while until some patches come up, his complaints sound more like coming from someone who just isn’t good at this kind of game. I obviously haven’t played this, so I can’t say for sure, but for one thing, just as you say, I don’t even remember anything being so terrible about any fights in the original, and I beat that game three times; so I’m suspicious to say the least.

        I usually like Nathan’s writing a lot, mind, but he doesn’t strike me as the right person to WiT this kind of game. I have a feeling that he would’ve destroyed Dark Souls, had he been the one reviewing it.

        Again, not having experienced the game firsthand I can’t be sure, but I’m afraid it might be a mistake that this piece is the official RPS word about the game. I think Adam would’ve been a more trustworthy fit.

        Edit: I’ve been reading comments from people that actually played it (just further down here), and this thread seems to be right on the money.

        • Ragnar says:

          In that respect, the “right” person to review it is the person who exactly agrees with you, which is kinda hard to gauge until after the WIT is done.

          Seems to me that a person who played and enjoyed Zeno Clash is exactly the right person to review Zeno Clash 2.

          Which isn’t to say that his review will agree with yours, but if his main concern is something you enjoyed, then you can ignore that part and breathe a sigh of relief. As someone who liked Zeno Clash in spite of the combat, rather than because of it, I’ll just breathe a sigh.

  5. Farfarer says:

    That’s a real shame, I was wondering how they would be able to match the original. It felt like it was precariously set up – partly by luck, partly by it’s sheer flawed soul – to be as good as it was.

    Oh, and;
    Couple of things. Of. Not couple things.

    • Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

      He’s American. Frankly I’m amazed he types as well as he does with guns in his hands.

      • The_Hunter says:

        jealous….

      • Ragnar says:

        I admit, it’s tough. We mostly have to rely on dictation programs, and hope they understand us through the cigars in our mouths.

    • Sparkasaurusmex says:

      isn’t couple synonymous with “two?”
      I wouldn’t say “two of things” just “two things”

      • DXN says:

        I wouldn’t say “one couple three” either. They’re not synonyms. But that doesn’t make ‘couple things’ wrong, of course.

      • Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

        A couple of things. The things are plural, the couple is singular.

        Now write it out a hundred times. And if it’s not done by sunrise, I’ll cut your balls off.

      • emertonom says:

        No, it’s a group word. It describes almost any group with two elements, but it’s still a group word. The closest word would be “pair”; you say “a pair of trousers,” not “a pair trousers.” But any group word is comparable: “a herd of sheep,” “a murder of crows,” “a business of ferrets.” They all use “of.” If you omit “of,” the group word is usually interpreted as an adjective; “business ferrets” would mean ferrets who conduct business, or perhaps ferrets designated for use in a business setting. “Couple things” would mean things pertaining to couples, like squabbles about who steals the blankets at night.

      • whollyrandom says:

        “Couple things” are things done by couples. This may – or may not – consist of video games and punching.

  6. drvoke says:

    That’s really too bad. I thought a lot of Zeno Clash was annoying (fighting the five apparitions of your trainer comes to mind) and I wasn’t super impressed by the combat, frankly. But it was interesting and serviceable, and it moved along at a swift enough pace introducing me to new characters and areas. It was short, but left me satisfied.

    This sounds drawn out and boring with too-slow pacing and further combat mechanic annoyances.

  7. LTK says:

    Seems like a fair verdict. I had faith in ACE Team’s artistic ability, but they might have overextended themselves a bit with ZC2, despite their efforts to avoid this in the first game. I think I’m still going to get it, though. ACE Team is not the kind of studio that would let the worst bugs pass unfixed after release.

  8. tomeoftom says:

    Well, fuck. Did it seem like maybe a lack of raw time/money could have something to do with the unevenness?

  9. VelvetFistIronGlove says:

    I bought it yesterday, and have got not very far in, but yeah, I was feeling the same as Nathan almost right away.

    Two particular points stood out to me that he doesn’t mention:

    1. To me, the combat feels wrong. In Zeno Clash it felt tangible; in ZC2 there’s a strange insubstantiality to it. I haven’t pinned it down, but it feels floatier, somehow.

    2. The first game did a good job of introducing the combat mechanics as you go. This one seems to expect you to know it already. There is a “Tutorial/Prologue” section, but it’s bizarre, and front-loaded with so much information about the many moves available to you that they become nearly impossible to remember.

    • Muzman says:

      Although it didn’t do that good a job of skilling you up. It was one of those games where you felt only properly competent by the end (well, I did). Annoying the same thing happening here. Still it’s a pitfall many games fall into.

    • Mollusc Infestation says:

      The brevity of the tutorial really gave me the impression that they didn’t expect anyone to be playing who hadn’t completed the first game. It felt more like a refresher, with a brief showcase of new features for good measure.

  10. noodlecake says:

    I would argue that there’s tons of intrigue in the new GTA. Having three protagonists which you can switch between who go about their daily business when you’re not controlling them could be pretty interesting. Also the physics engine and all the procedural animation stuff is going to be phenomenal, if the last GTA is anything to go by. It was improved on with Red Dead Redemption and then improved on again with Max Payne 3 (although there weren’t really any fun toys like cars to experiment with so it was a waste of time, in my opinion) so I’m expecting a leap of some kind again with the new GTA which will result in lots of hours of dicking around with cars and jumping off things into traffic to see what happens… Something that wasn’t fun at all in Saint Row or Sleeping Dogs.

  11. Muzman says:

    Hmm. A good portion of these criticisms, particularly those concerning how the game is a bewildering hodge podge of stuff, were exactly how the first one came across to people initially. it was only after some time had passed, even after having finished it, that affection truly grew.
    Perhaps something similar will happen here. (although this time the insane world and scenery doesn’t seem as unique, for obvious reasons. So that may hurt)

  12. Capt. Eduardo del Mango says:

    Aw, that’s a shame. I’ll still pick it up to check it out myself at some point, but I’ll leave it until after a few other purchases now.

  13. Totally heterosexual says:

    What a shame.

    • Bfox says:

      Aw man this was the game I was excited about most this year I cant believe it’s turned into A BOMB

  14. Bhazor says:

    Totally called it when they said they were going quasi openworld.

  15. Chris D says:

    That’s disappointing. I’m torn now. I feel this kind of glorious weirdness should still be supported in a world where too few larger developers are prepared to take creative risks. On the other hand, I don’t know what it is but we seem to have had a lot of really good games just released in the last week. I still need to pick up Monaco and Don’t Starve, I have my eye on Leviathan: Warships and Stardrive, and Eador continues to eat an ungodly amount of time.

    So, great week for PC gaming but probably a bad week to be releasing a game I would have picked up immediately at almost any other time of year.

  16. Paul says:

    More open and more RPGish is exactly what I hoped for.
    I am sure it will be great, reviews be damned.

  17. Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

    That was a good trick with the game.

    You learned that from me.

  18. Laketown says:

    I can’t help but thoroughly disagree with pretty much everything. I mean, some of the complaints are valid, but even then the complaints are more dire than the problems actually are; and I’ve gotten pretty far. The bugs are the most egregious problem but they aren’t that bad (a couple of broken fights and I got stuck in the middle of the road once)

    I mean yes, the pacing suffers at times, but I have never had a huge problem with the groups. They rarely attack you from the back unless you’re being slow with the person you’re facing, and even then you can usually do the back kick.

    and the story is less mysterious than the original because the team set out to explain zenozoik and it kinda has to be less mysterious because of that fact.

    also you are really over selling the first game’s plot. It was an excuse for Ghat and Deadra to run away to get to Golem. This, on the other hand, has already had more intricacy by the time you get to the jail and hear Golem talking to the other golem.

    (also the complaining that it’s not a true open world and then saying it’s not as good as the original is a little silly)

    • DXN says:

      I reject Nathan’s reality and substitute yours.

      (It’s more heartening until I can get the game and see for myself – even if I take Nathan’s review at face value I still think I’ll enjoy it purely to get a dose of weird.)

  19. Dominic White says:

    Can’t really agree with this review – it sounds like Nathan went in expecting and wanting something that the developers had never planned to make. He’s judging the game against internalized projections, rather than assessing what the game itself sets out to be.

    Yeah, it’s not as dreamlike or confusing as the first, story-wise. That’s because the entire concept here is to expand and explore the setting more. It’s a lot closer to their concept of Zenozoik (the open-world game) than anything. They’ve established the visual style and some of the characters in the first game, and now are actually showing everything in context. It’s a straight continuation of the story.

    The combat is definitely more Streets Of Rage than Punch Out, too. The lock-on system is pretty clever once you realize that you don’t need to de-lock to change target. Just drag your facing in the direction of the next target along and it’ll change who you’re focused on.

    • Ex-PFC Wintergreen says:

      His conclusion also doesn’t match up with the structure of the review. He spends almost the entire review complaining about various aspects of the game then concludes with “I think it’s fair to say that some really great ingredients got stirred into a toxic stew, and the end result isn’t something I can safely recommend to everyone.”

      Implying that there are a number of people who would enjoy it. Yet if you read the rest of the review you would think it was utter trash.

      Honestly, the game is substantially different from the first and some elements are clunkier than the first game. But for $20, it’s still a good game.

  20. abordeu says:

    Nathan; you could have disabled the auto lock on system from the start if you didn’t like it. Just like in Zeno Clash 1… :-/

  21. pocketlint60 says:

    I completely disagree that the combat was bad. Something was wrong with your version, or you just suck. There’s supposed to be a “backwards attack” function that kicks in almost literally every time an enemy attacks you from behind. It was probably a glitch.

    On that note, yes, this game is glitchy as all hell. It’s a real shame. I could barely even play co-op for a little while. However, I think you’re exaggerating it. I hate to think someone would read this review and think Zeno Clash 2 sucks. It’s great when it works, even though it doesn’t work as often as any game should. Zeno Clash wasn’t that way.

  22. Exostenza says:

    Dang! I was going to purchase this and now I am not. Thanks for the heads up RPS. I hope at some point they patch it up and maybe release some content to fix the issues and then I’ll buy it on that inevitable sale. Was looking forward to this, but oh well I guess I have way too many games anyways.

  23. adventerous3 says:

    I think one thing that would have gone a long way to deepening the experience of the world would be if the extremely visible and tantalizing containers in the world were loot-able. Looting not towards currency or crafting goals, but for its own sake; think of Bioshock Infinite, and how much more sterile the world would have been if you couldn’t open all the containers. It’s a great low-pressure incentive to explore, and it would introduce some high-low dynamics to the positive exploration-for-reward feedback, which is bland because every detour you plays out identically.

    I really like the retro graphics mode, I actually think I might get a lot of mileage out of it.

    • DXN says:

      Augh. No, I couldn’t disagree more. Putting containers full of meaningless junk everywhere is the opposite of making an interesting and compelling environment.

      Just bind a key to play a nice satisfying ‘kerching’ sound and mash it whenever you get bored, if that’s what you want.

      WAIT. Now I can’t tell if your comment was serious in the first place. CURSE YOU IRONY.

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  26. Mcjamesley says:

    If anyone fancies checking how the game plays and looks in game, feel free to check out this vid, with possibly more up and coming in the future, gives a good look on how the game plays and feels :D

  27. fuggles says:

    I know the devs come on here, which is great, so please, add a move list to the escape menu- I am going to have to write my own after redoing that useless tutorial. How do you back kick by the way? Also, how long is the thing?

    • Dominic White says:

      The game literally tells you the motion to back-kick every time an enemy is behind you.

      (It’s Back + both attacks)

  28. DestroyYourEgo says:

    Animal people punching other animal people in the face?

    Something has gone afoul on “Hello Kitty: Island Adventure”!