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Wot I Think: Zeno Clash 2

Punched Out

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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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Nathan Grayson

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