Effectively the equivalent of brawling your way through a Heronimus Bosch triptych – of which Chilean developer, ACE Team, were greatly inspired by – Zeno Clash offers a very unique and original take on storytelling, gameplay and, most importantly, presentation, that can both enchant and disturb you along its twisted paths.
Initially released as a Steam download in 2009 using Valve’s Source engine, Zeno Clash can appear to be rather mysterious, if not confusing, in its content and theme. Through the eyes of its rebellious, yet sullen protagonist, Ghat, the player is immediately thrust into the Frankenstein world that is Zenozoik – a cobbled together assortment of everything but the ordinary. One of many children under the looming, birdlike hermaphrodite that is Father-Mother, Ghat is forced to flee his clan after discovering a dark secret about their universal parent that subsequently ends in him taking its life. Assisted by his female companion, Deadra, the two travel far from their home into the unforgiving, violent territories that make up Zenozoik’s landscape, all-the-while hunted by Ghat’s siblings who are hungry for revenge.
Although containing an assortment of crude melee and ranged weapons, this game is centrally focused on first-person hand-to-hand combat, embracing this wholly untraditional style of gameplay with very satisfying effects. Using a simplistic control map (punch, harder punch, block, dodge, etc.), the player is given a lot of freedom to experiment and formulate a fighting style over a series of linear maps that mark each stage of Ghat’s journey, as well as his retelling of the events that lead up to his banishment. The key to Zeno Clash‘s intense combat, however, lies in its firm grounding and brutal placement within this alien world: whilst playing I often felt a rush of contradicting emotions between each combatant, reluctantly delivering the final blow to some, whereas others I felt driven by my own hate and fear to destroy – a good example of this being against the grotesque cannibal, Gabel.
In terms of story, some players may feel a little bit disappointed in comparison to the game’s otherwise bizarre design and philosophies. It is not badly written, as such, however the characters – especially Ghat – can occasionally feel a little lacking and flat, which is not helped by the speed in which the journey progresses (I completed the campaign over a period of 3-4 hours in total). It is important to note that more focus is certainly drawn to the environment and its inhabitants who you will find recycled throughout and, surprisingly enough, happy to recognise in repetition. This close-knit, community feel definitely adds to Zeno Clash‘s atmosphere, creating a sense of isolation, yet intimacy within its cast – if pummeling anyone and everything repeatedly in the face is to your favour, that is.
Overall, Zeno Clash, despite its flaws, is definitely worth experiencing for its creativity and fresh take on first-person combat, combining many elements from other games that inspired its design – a cross between, say, the stage-based fighting of Double Dragon and perhaps the (tamed) brutality and perspective of Chronicles of Riddick – lacking in size and freedom, however. The core factors that support this title definitely lie in its organic and natural feel, which certainly left me intrigued and wanting for more insight into the beautifully dark realm of Zenozoik. After completing its campaign, players are also given access to a Tower Challenge mode akin to Soul Calibur‘s ‘Tower of Lost Souls’, in which Ghat must complete each individual floor of ascending difficulty – a deeply satisfying addition for any player who wishes to test their mettle further within the Zeno Clash universe. I highly recommend experiencing this title, especially so with its highly anticipated sequel’s release at the end of this month.