Skip to main content

World Exclusive: The Zeno Clash Review

We've been playing Zeno Clash. Developers Ace Team were kind enough to suggest that we should furnish you with the world's first review of their insane beat 'em up. Our razor-sharp analysis of defeating elephantmen and bludgeoning lunatics follows.

Jim: Right, our subject today is the esoteric fist 'em up, Zeno Clash, by Chilean types, Ace Team.
Alec: I liked the bit where I repeatedly punched a bird-man in the face.
Jim: Bird-men are scum.
Kieron: Shall I do a brief fact-o-list of the game so we have the FACTS on the table?
Jim: Yes, facts, because facts are super-true.

John: I once heard that a fact can be so true it can slice a lie in half.
Kieron: Right - Zeno Clash is a linear first-person fighting (with bits of shooting) game built in the Source Engine. There's no multiplayer, bar a challenge mode where you can compete to beat friend's scores in set battles. It's ACE team's first game. They live in Chile. And that is all for the facts. SUBJECTIVITY ENGINES GO!
Jim: I believe it's only available on Steam, at least initially? That might be a fact?
Kieron: No, it's not. It's on Direct To Drive.
Jim: Ok then, no fact there.

Kieron: Oh - for the record, how much has everyone actually played of the thing? I've finished it and played some of the challenges.
Jim: I finished it and I've not played any challenges.
Alec: I am on the very last fight, but became annoyed by it and haven't yet completed it. I've also done a few of the challenges.
John: I've finished it ten minutes ago, so no challenges.
Jim: So it's a game of melee, and of shooting. But it's not much like any FPS I can think of. Can anyone think of any good comparisons or references to help give this game of context?
Alec: It reminded me a little of Riddick, but only a little.
Jim: Oh yes, Riddick is the closest in terms of sheer fist-action.
John: Hmmm, imagine if Condemned were set in the world of Mirrormask, and not shit.
Alec: Aesthetically, it's Outcast meets a slew of crazy late-90s French adventure games.
Kieron: I think it's actually a lot like a trad linear fighting game ala Double Dragon, as in, you move from fight to fight and it makes no pretense of being a "world".
Jim: Yes, it did feel rather like the FPS rejig of a classic scrolling beat 'em up.
Alec: It cheerfully repeats its enemies in the same way. That curious thing of fighting games: "oh, it's that guy again."
Kieron: Yeah - in a "You've had this guy - now fight this guy with a little friend" way.
Jim: Even down to food lying about to heal you up.
Kieron: But fruit instead of chicken. So healthier.
Alec: Mmmm. Chicken.
Jim: Yes, and it does feel healthy, as a game.

John: Going back a step: I don't think that's fair to the aesthetics, Alec. Those French adventures were lazy in their surrealism, just doodles for the hell of it. This feels like Bosch meets Dave McKean.
Jim: Quite so. It's really unusual to look at. The visuals are something of a reward, I felt.
Alec: Yes, the main driving force for me was to see what new madness they'd show me. And agreed, it's far more visually imaginative than those old adventure games - I was just scrabbling for some sort of context.
Jim: Anyone not actually like it?
John: Only a dangerous idiot wouldn't enjoy it.
Kieron: No, adored it. Reminded me of French graphic novels too.
Jim: If one part of it disappointed me, it was that it didn't escalate the craziness at the end - that final arena was *boring*.
John: And familiar.
Alec: Yeah, after the boat ride it pretty much just repeated earlier stuff.
Jim: Where as the beach whale-monster, or the giant elephant-giraffe things were incredible.
Alec: It does suffer a little from the Halo backtrack/repeat effect.
Kieron: Actually, about the graphical style - it's worth noting that Alejandro Jodorowsky is actually Chilean. It feels a lot like a Jodorowsky joint. Even the plot.
Jim: Is he? I thought he was Spanish
Kieron: No, Chilean.
Alec: (The readers will have no idea what we're talking about now. Giant elephant-giraffes, readers! With sheds hanging from their necks!)
Jim: Yeah, those should give you a gist of the kind of world it is, it's probably one of the maddest I've seen since Sacrifice.
Kieron: For the uninitated - Jodorowsky's a writer/director chap best known either for his weirdo westerns (El Topo, etc) or his comics (Metabarons) or just being gloriously mental. Anyway, yeah - someone paraphrase the plot.
Jim: Hmm, well, the raw story Zeno Clash tells is actually fairly unexciting. It's journey of discovery thing. A young male protagonist fleeing after killing his monstrous "Father-Mother"
John: And having learned a terrible secret. Trying to return home, he's outcast by his siblings. He had joined a clan called the Corwids of the Free, a group "not slaves to reality or common sense." But their insanity makes them his enemies too. So he's trying to escape, along with a friend, to find new hope.
Kieron: It's the mentalness of the details which elevates the stories - the woods full of monomaniacal psychopaths, for example. They were amazing.

Jim: His friend seems like the biggest mystery of the game, to me. The actual key plot "mystery" was obvious fairly early on, but his companion remains unexplained.
Kieron: She's an odd un, isn't she?
Alec: She's just a friend/lover, with antlers on her 'ead.
Jim: That old cliché.
Kieron: She's Alyx with an enormous furry hat.
John: I figured that was splendid hair.
Alec: She's curiously uninvolved - always disappears off to a safe ledge as you face-punch people.
Jim: Going back to what Kieron was saying about the Corwids: the entire game felt a bit like an excuse for the incredible character designs. Your companion is part of that, but just a tiny part: almost everything you meet is an awesome concept.
Alec: Yes. The Corwids are really there so that you can tour through a bunch of mad ideas, though they're affectingly tragic too. There's that bit where the narration tells you about one who basically curled up and died. And then later you actually pass her body - it's weirdly distressing to do so.
Kieron: There' s a real poetry to them.
John: Does this remind people of films like The Labyrinth and MirrorMask? A series of extraordinary visuals, loosely sewn together as a story.
Kieron: Yeah, a little - but really, much more the French stuff which you haven't read.
John: Actually, it reminds me more of a Serbian thing that you've never even heard of.
Jim: No, it's like Chinese stuff from a future only I can see.
Kieron: CHINA!

Alec: I definitely got a vague Metabarons vibe off it.
Jim: It does have a real whiff of esoterism to it, and I wonder if that will put people off.
Kieron: Maybe. But I dunno - to choose an example of its ideas, one of the Corwids who believes it's most important to be invisible. To do so, he tears out everyone else's eyes. I think that stuff captures the imagination.
John: Anyway, shall we talk about the game itself? I had thought, having played the few preview levels before, that it was just going to be a series of arena fights. So I was really delighted by the magic torch sequences.
Jim: Yes, it just about manages to be varied enough
Alec: If it had just been fight to fight to fight it would have failed, but it's impressively diverse, with the exception of the last three-ish levels.
Jim: how does everyone feel about that base-line action: the melee combat? I was surprised by how good it felt.
John: I was really worried it wouldn't work. I was convinced it would become a jumble. But it's just stunning. I never got a good hang of the blocking, but I wonder if that's because I never get the hang of blocking in games.
Alec: The only thing I thought was that some of the modeling is off - some beasts' punch-range doesn't seem to match the visible length of their arms, or their distance from you.
Jim: Boss battles in an FPS are usually achingly rubbish, but with perhaps the exception of the very end, the "character battles" in Zeno Clash are really something, especially the parachuting squirrel-bomb sequences.

Kieron: My main problem was the lock on system - where you lock onto an enemy and can circle them - was on the same key you use to pick up stuff. So trying to make a grab at an object near a baddie was literally impossible. And allow me to repeat what Jim just said: "Parachuting Squirrel Bomb sequences."
Jim: In terms of feeling manageable, and visceral, the melee is about as good as anything other than Riddick.
Alec: The other thing that annoyed in the melee was if you knocked someone down they were automatically de-targeted, and if you had a gun at the time, that would auto-pop up, which totally alters the fighting style.
Jim: Yes, that was what was interesting about it how it mixed in the ranged combat: it allowed you to put away your weapon and fight, or to have it knocked from your hands when an enemy got close. You could try to play a shooter at times, but it wouldn't work. Or, at least, it would only work so far.
Alec: I was actively trying to get my weapon knocked out my hands at times, just so it wouldn't pop up whenever I knocked a guy down.
Jim: I didn't notice that, but then I generally had the weapon knocked away from me.
Kieron: The problem with that is how long some moves take - like, say, reloading. How slow you move when you reload is... grating.
John: On a number of occasions, in the middle of a battle, it would take control away from you and show a cutscene in which you were losing. And I bloody wasn't! It did this twice when you've actually beaten the enemy, cutting to your being held to the ground and only winning by an action in the cutscene. I WON THAT!

John: So what were the other problems, Kieron?
Kieron: Doesn't end, for a start.
John: It sure seemed like it ended.
Kieron: Explain Golem. What did Golem do? Who was the enormous dude? All the spoiler stuff we can't really talk about in this verdict?
Jim: The end was unsatisfactory. I think it needed a bigger reveal to be any good - I'd already guessed the secret.
Kieron: I didn't. I wasn't trying, admittedly. I thought it was a pretty funny secret.
John: I was perfectly happy with it. I didn't guess the secret, which I guess helps.
Alec: I shrugged the story off as cheerfully inchoherent bunkum - just a backbone to show us mad stuff.
Kieron: But fuck you, y'know? I paid for a story. You didn't say it would be a Halo 2.
John: I paid for fistifights. Well, none of us paid a thing because we're too important.
Kieron: Well, obviously.
John: Regarding linearity, I think that's great. Double Dragon was linear. Hell, the Half-Life games are linear. It's an ideal way to give us this sort of game.
Jim: Kieron, you're not satisfied with just the ideas and the fights? I think that would be enough for most people?
Kieron: Oh, I like the game a lot. But I think for developers to end their first game with so many things open is an act of incredible arrogance.
John: It felt more dreamlike for me. Aimless start and aimless end, with a couple of threads through the middle.
Jim: It is quite dreamlike in that way, but then the narrative of dreams tend to not be much good. It's an incredibly visual game, and not in an "oh we're showing off with technology" way. It was more about their abilities as animators and artists. And even the voice acting is okay.
Kieron: Which is all the more amazing when it appears to have been done by the team.
John: There's so many needless mistakes.
Jim: I think you're exaggerating that, John. Look at it in the context of almost every other foreign game. The dialogue is fine.
John: I'm not exaggerating that there were many needless mistakes.
Jim: Oh come on, the voice acting in Men Of War makes Zeno Clash seem like an Oscar winner.
John: The subtitles were littered with typos, and many statements weren't correct.
Jim: I didn't have any subtitles, mistakes in the subtitles would emphasize it enormously.
Kieron: I dunno. It felt okay, in a translated foreign film way.
Alec: When the world it depicts is so strange and alien, it's easier to forgive grammar messiness. They almost add to the strangeness, in the way they did with Russian in Stalker SHOC.
John: I think that's nonsense.
Kieron: I didn't notice a single typo.
Jim: And in the game? Aaaanyway, does anyone have anything they've not yet vented?
Kieron: We haven't even hit the major problems, you know? As in, it's 4 hours long.

Jim: How much is it going to cost at release? Because for £7 on pre-order, that seems okay.
Kieron: When its released, its 15 quid.
Alec: I genuinely think it would have outstayed its welcome if it got much longer, some of the multi-enemy fights were getting pretty frustrating as they were - if it had been longer, it would probably have involved more escalation and thus become miserably hard.
Jim: I think it could have been longer, if they'd had more visual awesomeness to throw at us. Towards the end it was losing that edge, for me.
Alec: It's best they quit while they were still ahead.
Kieron: Which actually seems reasonable for me - you're right, that they'd have to have added more art assets and general mentalness to justify extending the game. As a budget game, it sits right. I think the actual challenges show the game's combat system up for the best actually - stuff like enemies fighting each other becomes much more important.
Jim: Do the challenge mode things have any life to them? I mean, I can't see myself replaying the story any time soon
Alec: If you're into competing with your mates for leaderboard places, maybe.
John: I want to say about the melee: The visceral nature of the combat is just astonishing. The force and heft makes you reel, and the sense of contact is incredible.
Kieron: Totally. KICK! PUNCH!
Alec: It's incredibly brutal in its feedback loop. I really felt bad about kicking guys when they're down.
Kieron: Yeah. I mean, I didn't feel bad. I felt ruthless. For me, the height of the game is stuff like stunning an enemy, grabbing him, kneeing him in the face three times - no more - and then throwing him to my left, where I know another enemy is, knocking them both over.
Jim: Compared to Mechants Of Brooklyn - a very similar project in size and attitude - this is a true feat of design and production.
John: We've been quite picky about bits and pieces, but I think that's testament to the fantastic standard overall. It in no way feels like the first game from an indie developer.
Alec: Yes, we're not criticising its fundamentals. It's an FPS fisticuffs game that looks and feels incredible.
John: My concluding remarks would be: Amazingly brutal, properly good melee combat, in the most beautiful lunatic world.

Jim: Enough! VERDICT!
John: BUY!
Alec: The Meerian thumb is aloft.
Jim: BUY!
Kieron: Yeah, thumbs up. If you're interested, I suggest you pre-order now. It's ten dollars on Direct2Drive right now, a 50% off offer which ends on Sunday night. On Steam it's only 25% off, but that's up to launch, I believe.

Our verdict: SALE!

Jim: Hooray, good work, Ace Team. The name proves befitting.
John: And punching bastard elephants is always good.
Kieron: I've always wanted to punch an elephant.
John: RPS instructs you to buy this immediately.

Read this next