Platform: XBLA (Download Demo)
Developer: Ace Team
At first glance, everything about Zeno Clash is wrong. It may sound like a generic XBLA twinstick shooter, but a quick look at the blurb will inform you that it's a first person brawler...set in a crazy fantasy world... that's powered by Half Life 2's Source engine... from a Chilean indie developer?!! Wait a minute. Surely there's no way that such a bizarre combination could work?
First person brawling is a relatively young subgenre that's still finding its feet amongst more traditional game experiences, but Ace Team has stepped out of left field and delivered one of the most entertaining (and thoroughly worrying) downloadable games on XBLA thus far. Zeno Clash throws you into a frantic race for survival through the bizarre and beautiful world of Zenozoik, as well as providing several arena challenges to bludgeon through alone or with a co-op buddy. A disturbing storyline and some impressive Source-powered graphics round out the package.
The combat system is breathtakingly simple. You've only got three buttons to master: fast weak attacks, strong attacks and a limited block. Sounds overly simplistic, but a quick flick of the thumbstick can change a jab into a hook, a punch into an elbow slam or a block into a quick sidestep that sets you up for a brutal counterattack. It's intuitive, responsive and utterly brilliant- and blows the likes of Mirror's Edge and Condemned out of the water thanks to its accessibility. Even rank newcomers will find themselves merrily duffing up hordes of bugbirds and quadruple-breasted leatherclad mice girls in no time at all.
Which brings us nicely onto the next point: Zeno Clash is plain bonkers. It's a subtle and sinister juxtaposition of traditional fairytale imagery with grotesque nightmarish horror, boasting creature and art design that'd be right at home in a Guillermo del Toro movie. Yeah, I know that was pretentious- but the delightful and disgusting world of Zenozoik has to be seen to be believed. You'll encounter herds of giant anteater giraffes, a monomaniac hellbent on becoming invisible by collecting everyone else's eyeballs and a blind sniper who throws exploding squirrels off the top of a beached whale... and that's just for starters.
Unfortunately, this intriguing setting isn't used to its full advantage. The land of Zenozoik has blatantly been planned out in enormous detail (since it's based on Ace Team's canned MMORPG), but there isn't enough time to fully immerse yourself in the place or invest in the characters. The campaign constrains the player to linear arenas and moves the story forwards (and occasionally backwards) at a fair clip- and it desperately needed a slower introduction before kicking off. An ingame encyclopedia or codex would've gone a long way towards providing Zeno Clash with the backstory it deserves.
Oh, and to all those who raised their eyebrows at the mention of "linear arenas"... yes, Zeno Clash is repetitive. Not only that, but the few attempts to break up the pacing with forced firearm sections are misguided in the extreme. No less than four bosses require firearms to defeat, which defies the point in my book. The guns feel weak, puny and unsatisfying with no real sense of power behind them. These sections aren't bad enough to become a real issue, but it's a shame nonetheless.
PC gamers may have already sampled the dubious delights of Zeno Crash, but the XBLA Ultimate Edition delivers a heap of new improvements and upgrades. The graphics have been sharpened up (incorporating a number of new effects), one of the voice actors has been entirely replaced and the new challenge modes severely increase the value of the overall package. If you've yet to dive through the rabbit hole, now's the time to do so.
- Intuitive, visceral fisticuffs
- Riotous challenges and cooperative mode
- Beautifully twisted artistic design and game world...
- ...but why can't we explore it?!
- Can be repetitive, firearm sections are a drag
- Lack of force feedback stops the combat from being truly satisfying
The short version: Zeno Clash provides a refreshing and brutal foray into a masterfully crafted nightmare (as well as Ace Team's warped psyche). Put simply, there isn't anything else like this out there... and it deserves your attention because it's damn good as well as being different. Sure, it isn't for everyone, but at least try the demo and see if it grabs you. If it does, you'll be in for one hell of a trip.