Move over Elden Ring, Clash: Artifacts Of Chaos is the new hardest game in town
Zenozoik isn't messing about
Clash: Artifacts Of Chaos is nails, mate. And that's coming from someone who recently reviewed Team Ninja's Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty, a game that's mighty good at grinding people into paste. I'm not trying brag; I'm being vulnerable with you. I have a case of the Ben Affleck blues, where most sessions of Clash's third-person action-adventuring have me veering from elation to being slumped against a wall with Affleck's signature grimace on my face.
Aside from being really difficult, I'm a bit undecided on how I feel about Clash in the portions I've played so far. It looks fantastic and puts some brilliant spins on combat, but levelling is a bore and exploration has a confusing edge. It's at once both a grand time and an annoying one. The surreal lands of Zenozoik, it turns out, aren't all sunshine and turkey men. There are a lot of turkey men, though.
For a brief bit of context, Clash: Artifacts Of Chaos is a spiritual successor to developer ACE Team's earliest offerings of Zeno Clash and Zeno Clash 2: both first-person fighting games where you right hook gangly toe people. So then, Clash: AOC sees you return to the colourful lands of Zenozoik as a guy called Pseudo. Not only does he look like a vacuum-packed Earthworm Jim, or a bloke who barely fits into a ballsack onesie, he's also gifted at martial arts.
A talent for beating the snot out of things is a boon for Pseudo, as the game's story centers around protecting a sooty barn owl called – his name cracks me up, because I am a child - The Boy from goons desperate to pinch him for his mysterious powers. It's one of those stories which starts off and you're like, "eh?", as there's no real context to anything. You're just a four-limbed Pepperami who decides to protect a bundle of feathers because you... feel like it? From what I've played so far, at least, the stakes become clearer as you explore the world and stumble into settlements where key characters reside.
Early confusion aside, I'm a fan of how the story unfolds. It's reminiscent of God Of War (2018), in the way you're a father-figure battling your way through a dangerous land to protect a kid. Except it's a world that's more muted than God Of War, with mostly the crunch of your steps or the crunch of your fists accompanying you on what's quite a solitary journey. There's not much chatter between you and The Boy, and it's a rare treat when you get to have a chat with a fucked up lil' guy. Although, again, I think the relative chill of the world fits Clash's dreamy, off-kilter universe.
Zenozoik is, just, phwoar. It looks the part, alright. From the sections I've explored so far, it's a frequently lovely mash of bright yellow and greens, stone and bones. The devs describe it as "punk-fantasy" style and it certainly seems that way. I mean, it's an Earth that feels like it's been upended and shaken and had Star Wars' Tattooine glued to it using a weird herbal mixture of berries and mugwort. Everything looks like it's been etched too, with crosshatch shading lending characters and scenes a wonderful texture.
Exploration in Zenozoik fluctuates in fun-factor as much as its environments, though. From what I've played, it's a relatively large semi-open world stitched together by loading screens that'll take you to separate "levels" (segments of the map), with save points in the form of campfires. Getting about has hints of Metroidvania to it, where you follow pathways with multiple routes and make a mental note of the spots you can't get through just yet. Often, you'll kick down boulders that'll act as shortcuts to access previous bits more easily, with some paths suddenly winding you back to views of much earlier portions.
Clash has no compass and no yellow blip telling you where to go, so it's a case of trusting your intuition or opening up your map - which isn't all that helpful as it's zoomed out really far and only vaguely tells you what area you're in. While I appreciate its free-range approach to exploration, it can be frustrating if you genuinely don't know where to turn next. Some areas have a habit of blending together, which makes certain paths nigh-on invisible at times, and you're often forced to backtrack through what can be a confusing tangle.
One of the game's most interesting twists is its use of nighttime. During daylight you might come across thorns you can't get through unless you're in Pseudo's "wooden" form, which means you'll need to sleep at a campfire and usher in the dark. At night Pseudo transforms into a creepy doll-like version of himself and is then able to clamber through these paths, batter some gatekeepers, and open the routes up for daytime Pseudo. It's a neat thing, offering some much-needed clarity when the path isn't clear, and provides a haunting aesthetic twist on Zenozoik. What's nightmarish – literally – is the enemies are more frequent and more challenging, too.
Clash is all about fights. You'll punch lots of dangly birds and tie-die marsupials, both in third-person with a number of martial arts stances, and in first-person once you've built up a meter. Do enough damage in first-person and you'll pull off a cool finisher, which can prove vital to chunking down the biggest of health bars. I chose the boxing stance to kick my adventure off, which has some hefty hooks and neat side-kicks if you combo your inputs with your dodges correctly. Honestly, though, I find the fights super tricky. Enemies are hard to read, and scraps have a slightly stiff quality to them, making duels where you need to flit between multiple opponents a real headache.
Don't get me wrong. I do enjoy games where each blow could mean life or death, and Clash certainly delivers on this front. I just think it's a bit careless with its difficulty spikes, and some of its smaller details: your health flask has only one use for ages, which seems a bit mean, and parrying doesn't seem to reward you with anything but a little block? Where's the opening for a counterattack eh?! Perhaps I am just bad at the game's brawling, but man, the number of times I've just been floored with, crucially, little lessons learned would've required several chalkboards to tally up.
Then you've got the whole artifacts side of Clash, which is cool in theory but rarely feels like it makes a huge difference to fights. Often you'll come up against burly turkey men and gnarled hunks of meat, whom you can challenge to a game of The Ritual before you tango. You both plonk down artifacts (for instance, one that "poisons whoever stands still"), then whoever loses gets hit with the effect. The ritual itself is a board game where your dice totals are added up after you've chucked them down. You then use stamps - you can find these out in the world, or buy them from traders - to reduce your opponent's score in clever and devious ways. If you can't be arsed with any of this, you can just ignore it all, too. Whatever takes your fancy.
Again, the ritual is neat in practice! But when I win I rarely feel its impact. I wonder if this is because a fight's altered rules are hampered by AI enemies that know not to cross certain bounds with their computerised brains, or certainly don't mind not moving lest they get poisoned. Maybe I've just not unlocked any of the good ones yet.
So yeah, Clash is an odd one. I think it presents a very interesting world with a bundle of clever ideas. I think the combat's cool, with all the different martial arts and combos you can pull off. The tension in duels is palpable and exploration can be rewarding. But then there's a lot of caveats here, too. The game can be highly frustrating, with exploration that can veer from pleasant to suffocating and combat that's jarring in its difficulty. I still think the game's worth giving a shot, though. Zenozoik has an allure and quirkiness that's rather magnetic.