Zeno Clash Review
Zeno Clash box art
System: X360, PC Review Rating Legend
Dev: ACE Team 1.0 - 1.9 = Avoid 4.0 - 4.4 = Great
Pub: ACE Team 2.0 - 2.4 = Poor 4.5 - 4.9 = Must Buy
Release: Apr. 21, 2009 2.5 - 2.9 = Average 5.0 = The Best
Players: 1 3.0 - 3.4 = Fair
ESRB Rating: Teen 3.5 - 3.9 = Good
Up Close and Personal
by Nathan Meunier

Treading far off the beaten path of traditional game themes and lighthearted design concepts that are easily digested by mainstream audiences sometimes poses too much of a risk for major publishers to take. This is why many gamers who've grown bored with the status quo are turning to slightly stranger, edgier indie gaming project being put out by small teams of programmers and game designers. Players who are seeking an enticing and unusual blend of the familiar and the far out needn't look any further than Zeno Clash - a first-person brawler set in a bizarre, beautifully designed fantasy world that frequently walks the line between grotesque and enchanting.

Zeno Clash screenshot

Built on the solid foundation provided by the Source Engine, Zeno Clash is a prime specimen of the odd and exciting things that can be accomplished when developers dare to be different and think outside the box. For its debut indie release, nominated for an award at this year's Independent Games Festival, the Chile-based ACE Team has pulled out all the stops to create one of the most intense and strangest gaming experiences you'll likely encounter for a long time.

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Unless your gaming tastes bend more towards the darker and creepier end of the spectrum, there's not much that will fully prepare you for the eerie world Zeno Clash immediately thrusts you into. Imagine a warped fantasy landscape - much like those found in films like The Dark Crystal and The Labyrinth - populated by a mixture of tribal humans, deformed lunatics, hideous humanoid creatures, and other peculiar denizens whose intentions are often murderous in nature. Zenozoik, the game's world, has all of this and more. With extremely impressive (both graphically and conceptually) character designs that exude a primitive, Mad Max-style punk chic, the inhabitants of Zenozoik are some of the most curious you'll find. The land itself is also impeccably designed to inspire curiosity and intrigue. In a nutshell, this is one visually memorable and gorgeous game.

In this anarchic realm populated by dangerous tribal gangs and powerful families, you play as Ghat, who finds himself at odds with his family's hermaphrodite matriarch/patriarch called Father-Mother. Fleeing from the city with his female companion, Daedra, in tow, Ghat walks a dangerous path that ultimately comes full circle. The story itself starts out almost unintelligible, gradually comes into focus, builds to a crescendo, and then strangely drops off at its conclusion. Even if the short tale is a little undercooked, it provides reason enough to venture out into the game's dangerous and exotic locales to pummel numerous deformed and psychotic creatures.

Zeno Clash screenshot

Zeno Clash plays much like a first-person shooter, only long-distance combat and use of weaponry is heavily downplayed in favor of an extensive melee battle system. Using the developer's own comparison to Double Dragon works well to provide an accurate sense of the wide range of cool hand-to-hand maneuvers at your disposal for sending your malformed adversaries sprawling to the dirt clutching more than their bruised egos. Quick jabs can be delivered individually or in rapid succession; powerful swings take longer to build up momentum but can be devastating if they connect properly; and dazing opponents with a few blows lets you send them flying with an uppercut or grapple and smash their heads into your knee before flinging them aside. You can deliver kicks, running elbow smashes, and other painful combos with proper timing. Blocking offers a meager defense at close range, and you can lean left of right to deliver additional jabs at surprise angles, but they also tire you out (slowing you down for a short time when your stamina meter runs low). The ease and speed you can pull off most of these maneuvers using a combination of mouse clicks and simple keyboard commands is surprising, though using these attacks wisely in battle is the key to not getting clobbered. Firing off many of the fighting moves is just a matter of moving in the right direction and working the right combination of mouse buttons, making the system relatively easy to learn and intuitive to use.

Optional weapons you can pick up are traditional in function (a crossbow, a shotgun, dual pistols, a sledgehammer, grenades, etc.), but they're far from conventional in design. These deadly implements are constructed out of strange, makeshift materials and look just as peculiar as much of what you'll find elsewhere in the game's design. They can be crucially helpful when fighting larger numbers of foes at once, yet you're often forced to fall back on your fists because it takes little for opponents to disarm you.

Zeno Clash screenshot

Screenshots / Images
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