The Games Of Christmas: December 1st

Twenty-four games sit behind the windows of our festive pagan Endless Bear calendar, each one a thing that made the year of 2009 brighter and more interesting. But which game comes first? And what will we have to say about it? Follow the excitedly trembling hand of the one true leader of the Autobots to discover…

Zeno Clash!

Jim: I sometimes worry that games aren’t weird enough. Occasionally you get little bubbles of weird, like Sacrifice or Psychonauts, popping up and restoring the balance, and they’re often enough to shift us into the weird for months at time. Zeno Clash did just that: it was visually peculiar, had a deeply strange story running through it, and introduced some of the strangest characters I can remember. I was glad of it precisely because it tried to be unusual. Occasionally such efforts feel contrived or immature, but Zeno Clash delivered it with an air of mystery, and a Half-Life-like lack of exposition that made it intriguing.

It was far more fortunate, I suppose, that the hand-to-hand combat actually worked. I’ve seen a few people comment that they felt it was awkward or unwieldy, but I personally found it to be precisely right. It was brutal, fights were never too long, and it genuinely felt up-close and personal. Melee is difficult to pull off in an FPS, and I felt this sort of concession to the dynamics of boxing made perfect sense.

Perhaps what’s most pleasing, however, is to see a new team creating a world and making a success of it. I’m double keen to see what ACE Team get up to next. Apparently it’s a sequel of sorts, and more open worldy, which should please those – like me – who regularly sound the anti-linearity trumpet.

John: Like Jim says, the biggest surprise here was that the fisticuffs worked. Melee is so often the curse of games, and for an indie developer with their first major game to be putting all the emphasis upon it seemed like it would spell certain doom.

When we first gained access to some early preview code I was, oddly enough, no less concerned. It still felt wrong at that stage, too difficult, too frustrating. I’m not sure how much was that I was no good at it, and how much was the improvements they made in the following months, but what a man-sized phew it was when it finally came out.

In fact, so well implemented was the biff-punching that it wasn’t what stood out most about the game. Which is exactly as it should be – it felt naturally part of the world. What of course stood out was the remarkable creature and world design. There’s not a moment that isn’t beautiful to look at. There wasn’t a time when playing it I didn’t hammer at the screenshot button. At least one of these sat on my desktop for months. It’s such a smart game – that’s what impresses me the most. It’s intelligently put together, intelligently designed, and the combination of limited ranged weapons and powerful melee attacks reversed the norm while not breaking the logic of a first-person perspective. The story may have made no sense to me at all, but the experience was what mattered.

Kieron: Instead of echoing John and Jim – who are entirely right, and I agree with every word, except the subtextual bit where Walker looks at you with hurt eyes and says I am not a bad healer – I’m going to pick up on another something about Zeno Clash which impressed me, and I think a lot of developers (especially smaller developers) would do well to follow.

For a game that’s so often described as “mad”, Zeno Clash is eminently sensible. As they described in their Gamasutra Postmortem, Zeno Clash was their second take at a game. The first, based on similar material, fell apart. It was the sort of sprawling open-world joy which Jim spends much time lusting after it. Problem being: too ambitious. They couldn’t pull it off.

They sat down, had a little think, focused and pulled off Zeno Clash. It’s a game born of almost perfect compromise between their vision and their resources. People who say they want it to be longer are actually saying “we’d like it a little shitter, please”. The one game which followed Portal in its careful focusing on its strengths, it narrowed itself down to a level where – on its own stage – it could compete with close to anyone else in the world. And, of course, it helps that what it chose to show on its stage was an act which you couldn’t find anywhere else.

That’s the secret of Zeno Clash. Just because you’re being mad, you don’t have to be stupid. I can’t wait to see what ACE team do next.

Alec: I really like the weirdo guns too. No-one ever talks about the guns. Poor guns. Come to me, I will hold you and love you.


  1. The_B says:

    I enjoyed Zeno Clash, but despised that boss battle against the sniper guy. I just kept getting overwhelmed by the exploding things, and as a result has caused me to still have not completed the game – I know I really should, just never felt compelled to for the last eight(?) months.

  2. Martin Coxall says:

    I like the art design and the atmosphere. I just didn’t much enjoy the punching.

    I do think that was rather more my fault than the game’s though.

    • klumhru says:

      I agree, the story and art drew me in, the fights were just a means to an end. Reminded me of Wing Commander in that respect.

    • Vinraith says:

      Yup. It had brilliant art design, an interestingly weird story, and a neat world, but the combat was incredibly tedious and repetitive. The best parts were invariably those where you were doing something other than punching and kicking (the dark temple, the boat ride, etc). Especially towards the end, when you’re fighting the same enemies from the beginning in the same environments from the beginning using the same moves from the beginning, it just got to the point where it was far more chore than game. Blessedly it was also short, so at least you could see the end without enjoying the combat overmuch, but I’m not sure how complimentary that really is.

  3. AndrewC says:

    Also the lady was super pretty to look at. Also she wasn’t wearing much but, to be fair, neither was anyone. What i liked was that there was a melancholy that seeped around the edges their designs without bogging the narrative down in goth-glum histrionics. It wasn’t the wan melancholy of the Brits, the slightly bored misery of, say, the French, but a sort of lusty sadness – there was a sense of loss, regret and of hard choices made in the characters, but the vivaciousness, physicality and sexiness was never compromised – possibly the voices, or the excellent face work, or the large amount of skin, or maybe even just the viscerality of the thumping.

    Anyway, it’s that sort of lusty sadness that made the game distinctly Latin American to me.

    • Rinox says:

      Well said. It felt like a Gabriel Garcia Marquez book to me. Magical realism and all that jazz, with a hint of hopeful melancholy and a snuff of sex.

    • Dave says:

      Well said, and I agree, and yet I didn’t actually enjoy the game. It was one of those where I was grateful for a demo so as to avoid spending money on it just out of curiosity.

  4. Bobsy says:

    Zeno Clash is one of those rare games that takes its visuals and aims for making art rather than just prettiness. The level where you’re drifting down a river is actually pretty rubbish, but when it first loaded up it took my breath away for looking almost like an oil painting. Zeno Clash cares about its colours and scene composition, and not enough games do.

    Balls-out weird game though. It felt so alien, as if you were wandering through someone else’s dream and the normal rules of the world didn’t apply. And while the fisticuffs were lovely, the “lock-on” system was a pain to manage.

  5. Rob says:

    I’m pretty sure i’m the only one who really dislikes the art style of this game. It was just too wierd for me i guess.

    Gameplay was pretty fun though.

  6. kyrieee says:

    I really didn’t like this game. The combat was annoying, and I felt that the setting / characters / plot / voice acting was stupid

  7. ascagnel says:

    Its implementation of first-person melee was what set it above games like Oblivion and Condemned: Criminal Origins. That said, if you like Zeno Clash, try Condemned. Its very good.

  8. Ian says:

    Still never played this, though I suspect I will if a) I ever get back on top of my seemingly endless mountain of unfinish games and b) I see it for supah-cheepz.

    • kwyjibo says:

      It’s £3.82 on Steam right now. I’d say that was super cheap.

  9. Vandelay says:

    Liked the weirdness and kept playing to see where it would go next, but I never particularly enjoyed the game. The fisticuffs were handled well, but it was the level design that I really disliked. I’m not one to normally complain about linear games, but it really did feel like a long corridor with some arena areas splitting it up. There are a lot of linear shooters that follow this pattern, but this generally masked in someway. In Zeno Clash there was never any attempt to hide this, as you walked along paths lined with knee-high fences. This particularly felt unnatural in a game set in such a fantastic world.

  10. Wulf says:

    I think there might be a lot of people who were too hard wired into guns to actually get too much enjoyment out of what Zeno Clash is. …say, I have a Gillenesque thinkythink, so I’m going to follow on that for a moment and take you all on a random tangent with me (if you’re still reading, o’ course!).

    Okay, so… Unreal Tournament 2004, who remembers that game? It was a game with guns, but it often didn’t play like a game with guns, and I can’t easily elaborate on that. If you played Unreal Tournament 2004 as a gun game, you failed. It was a game of fast action, cars, it was silly, it was like an action movie, and guns were more like melee tools that just happened to spit bullets.

    I remembered having problems with my pick-up teams in Unreal Tournament 2004, it was hard to convince them to run with me to the objectives, firing madly at anything that was fool enough to get in our way. No, they just wanted to sit around and snsipe. They had a first-person perspective, there were guns present, it was a gun game. Except it wasn’t.

    It was always the team that sat around sniping that failed, invariably, much to my chagrin. But when you had a team that actually understood the nature of the game, it was a beautiful multiplayer experience and lots of fun, and so very silly.

    I think the Scout is similarly misunderstood in Team Fortress 2, as not many people think of him as a strong class and use him sometimes only because of his speed, but with the Force of Nature, he becomes something particularly interesting. It turns him into a bloody berserker, and that’s not something that many people know how to play, that intrigues me.

    I think were I to do pick up games in Left 4 Dead 2, I’d probably be the only one hacking away at zombies with a guitar (and actually doing a better job of it than the people with the guns). And when I have a machete I’m a whirlwind of death, but I think that applies to everyone, as it seems even the people who’re attached via some invisible umbilical cord to their guns have learned the power of the machete.

    Given my odd understandings of first person melee, I felt right at home with Zeno Clash, I actually got good at it really, really fast, and I was having loads of fun with blocking, dodging, punching, oh the punching. And when I played Brick in Borderlands I was actually really disappointed because it was so very simple by comparison. I wish they’d made Brick the ‘Zeno Clash’ class, you know? Anyway, Zeno Clash…

    I had a lot of fun with it, but I can see some people thinking “B-bu-but… first-person, no guns, I can’t shoot, I can’t SNIPE!”, and they’re not going to be able to defeat that brain-wiring enough to actually learn how to play the game. And that’s a crying shame.

    Oh, and before I finish up those post: Bad Gillen, stop picking on Walker! I’m sure he’s a great healer!

    • Vandelay says:

      I think you are misunderstanding peoples’ misunderstanding of the scout. They don’t think of him as a class just with speed, they think of him as a class that is speedy and has a fairly powerful primary weapon when up close. Most people play scout as a deathmatch killing machine (I’m guilty of this too, but just because he is so unintentionally good at it.)

      The FaN (original, before being buffed) made the scout play as he was meant. As does the Bonk! energy drink. And the Sandman.

      Slowing people down whilst speeding past them is what the scout should be doing, so that he can reach that next point or quickly escape with the intelligence. Basically, how you say people should play UT2004.

      Anyway, another topic.

    • Funky Badger says:

      I use the same tactics in L4D2 as I do in DragonAge… two melee fighters at the front, two ranged specialists at the back…

  11. Wulf says:

    Woah, double-post with only one strike of the opinion button.

    I wonder if it’ll do it again?

  12. Persus-9 says:

    I liked the guns to, they were really good and much underated. They dual pistols in particular were very cool, pretty damn useful and reminded me to the bone gun from eXistenZ. The really great thing was that they were well balanced, I found I could play most of the game by running away from the enemies and shooting them with the guns instead of running towards them and punching them with fists but in doing this I never felt like I was gaining an unfair advantage because the guns. I was just playing the game in a different way and it was still tense and exciting.

  13. Crimsoneer says:

    Alec’s perls of wisdom, as usual, shine through :P

  14. Schaulustiger says:

    My god, I though I was the only one!

    I couldn’t force myself to finish the game because it was just too weird for my taste. I couldn’t identify with any character and found the game world a bit too disturbing to be enjoyed as a game.

    • Schaulustiger says:

      That was meant as a reply to Rob, actually.

      Damn this comment system.

  15. Thants says:

    Not enough games nowadays have fish-guns.

  16. pignoli says:

    Well, that makes one of the 24 that I’ve definitely played, completed and enjoyed. If that count gets now higher at all, I will still consider it a success.

  17. Dominic White says:

    Many people seem to have been really put off by the weirdness of Zeno Clash’s setting, but it’s really not that strange. It’s basically 80s punk fantasy. Anyone who hasn’t already seen it a dozen times already should go and track down The Dark Crystal right this second – ACE Team confirmed that it was one of their strongest influences.

    As for the gameplay, it was a pretty solid take on first-person facepunchery. That said, I still think Breakdown (effectively Half-Life reimagined as a brawler by Namco, with an AMAZING plot twist that I wouldn’t spoil for anyone) on the original Xbox was better at it.

  18. AbyssUK says:

    You got to hit elephant men with a big hammer… what isn’t to like

    • Clovis says:

      And even better, when you hit him with it so hard the hammer’s head breaks off, you gotta’ beat him to death with the handle. Awesome!

  19. The Hammer says:

    I’m gonna get this for Christmas, I think. It’s one of those games I was really hyped about, and never bought. It’s also one that most people I’ve shown it have without fail seemed enthralled. A bit like Trine, really.

    Fantastic art style, by the by. The best thing about the game, I reckon.

  20. manintheshack says:

    Weird reference: Zeno Clash reminded me of Barbarian 2, and I loved Barbarian 2. I also love Zeno Clash.


    Turning the corner and being faced with that beached whale thing was awesome in the true sense of the word.

    • Taillefer says:

      I was hoping that would be the boss. Flailing wildly and awkwardly as it dragged its massive weight around by its chin. :/

  21. Cooper says:

    Zeno Clash will be one of those games I’ll replay once a year or once every two years, no matter how much ‘graphics technology’ progresses simply to be in that world.

    It has an eminently timeless combination of a fantastical world which is yet internally coherent and beautfiul (importantly, not built on tottering piles of boring lore text, like too many fantasy games – and so, like all good cutural mediums, allowing adequate space for a projection and reflection of the individual game player into and on that world) and a visual style which will not age.

    Developers will eventually learn that whilst ‘realistic’ visuals will age in a matter of months, an exciting, vivid and beautiful visual style will never age, no matter how many polygons per krundle current games machines can push.

  22. Peace of Eight says:

    “Half-Life-like lack…” Say that ten times fast. Rubber baby buggy bumpers.

  23. Calabi says:

    I’ve seen weirder, late at night on channel 4.

    Good game, good combat.

  24. kwyjibo says:

    Zeno Clash is 66% off on Steam this week.

    You have no excuse to not pick it up at £3.82.

    link to

    • Gotem says:

      Coincidence? or they are going to put on sale each game revealed by Optimus Prime?
      Until now 100% of the games selected by the RPS guys are on sale.
      one can only hope, no?

  25. Railick says:

    I really liked everything about Zeno Clash, I enjoyed the hand to hand combat a GREAT deal it reminded me a lot of my old favs like Double Dragon and Streets of Rage infact I found myself using the same tactics from those games! In the old double dragon and streets of rage generally I would crowd control by running at the enemies and kncoking them down over and over until I got one alone and the others down, then I’d do a combo on that one and hurt him then run back and knock the other ones down ect so I never get hit, same tactic works perfectly in Zeno Clash :) The only thing that made this harder was bad guys with guns, but once I got to notice their attack patterns it was easy to disarm them before they could even shoot. I don’t personally understand how anyone could not enjoy the combat but to each their own I suppose.
    I really enjoyed the boss fights. The dude with the exploding squirrels was a total trip out. My wife played it first and she was the first one to make it to him and we both just stood there like O.o REALLY? REALLY?! She was able to beat him really easily so I’m not sure why other people complain that he is to hard (She almost never plays games at all and she beat him on the first try ;P) Just ignore the squirrels and keep running about and shoot him or if you must (and I must, because I adore violence) kick the squirrels away and shoot them too ^_^
    Battles with father-mother were also a lot of fun as it took me a while to figure out exatly how to kill hir. The only boss battle I didn’t enjoy was the hand to hand fight with the hunter because it was one of those you’re geared to lose and have another NPC step in and save you, I don’t like that. There is an achievement for getting him down to 1 HP in Hand to Hand, I really don’t see how you’d ever earn that but Im sure it is possible.
    The little mini-game they added with the pit and tower are also a lot of fun if you enjoy the combat to begin with, really like the pit one the best as it is neat to jump down deeper and deeper killing stuff I just wish the monsters took more falling damage, it seems strange when you knock someone 5 stories down and they get up and keep fighting like nothing happened.

    Shadowcat “It hammers at my retinas like an evil woodpecker of pure energy”

    • Taillefer says:

      I managed it. :P

      I actually thought it was a bug that he wouldn’t die and gave up on the fight about to quit. Which is when he took me down and the game advanced. Possibly the only thing I remember irritating me during the game.

    • Velvet Fist, Iron Glove says:

      I also managed to bring the hunter down to 1hp — I found him fairly easy to fight, being mostly a matter of timing, and I too found it frustrating that he just wouldn’t stay down. And then he got a hit in on me when I was careless and I found that that was meant to happen.

      What I love most about Zeno Clash is the weirdness of the art, and the weirdness of the characters, especiallythe Corwids who were wonderfully mad. Helim, needing to be invisible, removed the eyes of anyone who could see him. Oxameter just walked in a straight line, not letting anything get in his way.

  26. Carra says:

    No, you can’t hold my gun, Alec.

  27. Simon Jones says:

    Much to my disappointment, I simply couldn’t get on with the combat at all – it felt to me like it was badly designed, except everyone else seems to love it, so I suspect it’s actually just that I was crap at it. :) It never felt as satisfying or intuitive as Riddick or Dark Messiah – I repeatedly lost pretty much every fight, without every really knowing why.

    I don’t mind being crap at game when I first start playing them, but I do expect to at least have an inkling of what I’m doing wrong. Zeno Clash didn’t seem to give me enough feedback to enable me to adapt, and so I never really got past the second or third level.

    Probably my most disappointing purchase of the year, which is a great shame as I love the visual designs. I’m still looking forward to what the team does next.

  28. mejobloggs says:

    Agreed. I especially liked how if you got hit, you dropped the gun (iirc, been a while since I played it). This especially made guns useful but not overpowering

    Enjoyed the game. Totally loved that level sailing down the lake, looked beautiful

    • mejobloggs says:

      Bah, that was a reply to “Persus-9 says: December 1, 2009 at 3:47 pm I liked the guns to, they were really good ………….”

  29. Krikey! says:

    Aside from voice acting, everything else about ZC was great, especially the combat. Shame the voice acting wasn’t up to par.

    • Thants says:

      I liked the voice acting. It was somewhat odd and disjointed, but that actually fit the game well. Deadra’s accent was really strangely appealing.

    • Joe says:

      Bearing in mind that the voice actors were non-pros it ain’t too bad. Father-Mother and the more grunty side characters were better than the leading duo.

  30. fishyjoes says:

    Valve reads your blog: link to

  31. Simon says:

    Loved this game. Want more of it, want co-op. Purchased two copies as xmas gifts now that the price is so low. Thank you, fishyjoes, for bringing my attention to that :)

  32. luphisto says:

    loved the dark crystal, was a masterpiece. id also liken it somewhat to the labyrinth cept with less David bowie in disturbing tights.

  33. Andytizer says:

    Now that it’s £3.82 it’s an absolute bargain for one of the most original indie games to come out this year.

    • Baboonanza says:

      I was very close to buying it yesterday for £11.50 too! I’ll definitely take it for £3.82

      OM NOM NOM

  34. Wizlah says:

    I purchased it today, and was downloading it from steam when the wee fella (all of 1 1/2 years) woke up. Curious about all things computerly, he wanderd back into the living room, took one look at the opening sequence with no words, ominous music and mother/father whatever you call it and fled behind my back in terror.

    Shut it down immediately. I am a bad da, and will pay for this when he wakes up in the middle of the night screaming.

    (I mean, I wasn’t going to play it, I just wanted to make sure the damn thing worked …)

  35. army of none says:

    This game is full of succeed.

  36. Ziv says:

    @Jim: I know it’s a bit late for this article (my fault, been a while since I’m on the site), but I really wanted to say this; I don’t think the game is exposition-less like half life, I think the whole game is the exposition up until you meet the guy who explains everything to you (I can’t remember his name) and you go on to fight father-mother (which, by the way is one of the most fascinating characters I’ve seen in video games).

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