Surreal-fist: Zeno Clash Review

That's the titular fist, punching some sort of parrot-man. I love this game something fierce.

Picture this, if you will. You’re outside in the street; around you, there are some small stone huts and assorted forms of unusual plant life, some glowing orange. The sky is a strange shade of purple, the horizon a technicolour parade. In front of you, there’s a ten-foot chicken: your hermaphroditic parent, Father/Mother. And he/she’s angry with you. You take a skull-bomb into your hand, and explode it in Father/Mother’s face, killing him/her. And then you run. You run, and you run, and you run, until you reach the very End of the Earth. And then there’s nowhere left to go, but back.

Is your reaction to this:

a) “That sounds unrealistic and stupid”?

b) “That sounds awesome!“?

c) “I should stop considering LSD a food group”?

If your answer is “a”, you should probably stop reading now – there’s nothing for you here. If your answer is “b”, or to some degree, “c”, I present to you: Zeno Clash.

"The Sand People are easily startled but they will soon be back, and in greater numbers. Oh, and riding giant dino-giraffes."

Zeno Clash is mad. It’s mental; deranged; off-the-wall, lunatic, demented, surreal, and unhinged. It’s colourful, incoherent and mind-crushingly kinetic. It’s probably unlike anything you’ve ever played. Did I mention that it’s mad?

It’s a first-person punch-’em-up, if you will. It’s been described as a kind of Source Engine update of the old Double Dragon arcade game. You take on the role of Ghat. As you tread a very prescribed path, you encounter enemies – who come in waves of various sizes – and you’re tasked with smacking them down in all kinds of interesting and hyper-physical ways. These ways include fish guns, warhammers, crossbows, and – most satisfying of all – some tasty knuckle action.

Let’s talk about the fighting. It’s bloody fantastic (but it’s not fantastically bloody). If there’s one thing Zeno Clash really, really nails, it’s the feeling of actually being in a fist fight – the woozy disorientation of being punched one too many times, the visceral THWACK! of fist on face, the single-minded need to hit the other person before they hit you. It’s a remarkably intuitive system – one button for light combo attacks, one for heavy attacks, and one for blocking – that beats out its nearest cousin, Dark Messiah of Might & Magic, by a fairly wide margin. As first-person punchers go, Zeno Clash certainly stands tall above the pack: little compares to the edge-of-your-seat, breathless satisfaction the game provides when you’re standing tall above a fallen enemy, even if you’re barely clinging to life yourself.

I love that there's a game that looks like this. Really. Look at it.

And it’s a good thing it has spectacular fisticuffery, because there’s a lot wrong with the pointy-shooty side of the game. For one thing, when you’re in posession of a firearm, it tends to get in the way during melee combat at the most inopportune moments imaginable. For another thing, reload times are unreasonably protracted. It’s likely to balance ranged combat against the stronger fist-fighting side of things, to encourage people to pound the enemy’s face in at close range rather than pumping shells into them from a distance, but it certainly rankles at various points throughout the game.

The story is… well… there. It’s intriguing enough, if slight and willfully obtuse for the most part. Chronologically, it flits back and forth to various points in Ghat’s story, with the conceit being that he’s reciting the fragmented story to his current afroed-and-antlered companion (and possible love interest) Deadra. But the fact is, the story is an excuse to give you enemies to punch, and interesting places to go – however predictable the overall arch of things may be, the glory of Zeno Clash is in the details, the experience.

Take, for example, the Corwids of the Free: the creatures who dared abandon both the city of Halstedom, and their own sanity, to live in the woods with a pure lack of reason to their lives. There’s Oxameter, who has a boulder for a head, and pulls himself along in a straight line via a handle sticking out of the boulder, never changing his path. There’s Helim, who wants to be invisible, so he plucks the eyes out of those who would see him. And then there’s the tragic Ermenia, who peed herself and died alone.

Or the section where you’re taking potshots from a cobbled-together rifle at a blind bounty hunter, who’s riding atop a gigantic dino-giraffe, while hurling parachuting squirrel bombs at you.

A blind bounty hunter, who’s riding atop a gigantic dino-giraffe, while hurling parachuting squirrel bombs at you.

And as fantastically imaginative as the set pieces and characters are, the scenery consistently equals them, both in terms of visual flair, and memorable moments. The Source Engine, though technologically behind the times, looks absolutely wonderful here (not that it ever looked particularly shabby) – the moonlit boat ride is one of the most serenely beautiful scenes I can remember seeing in a game. Sure, it’s punctuated with a little bit of shooty-snipey action, but when you turn your attention back to the reflected light of the moon dancing across the water, even slightly-irritating shooting mechanics can seem poetic.

Reason #27 for buying this game: Firing fish guns at frenetically dancing, bird-like one-man-band. While punching other people in the mouth.

Probably the greatest feather in Zeno Clash‘s – and developer Ace Team’s – proverbial hat is that it in no way feels like the first game from an independent developer. The world of Zenozoik, and the city of Halstedom, feel like they house a much broader story; like Ghat’s tale is just one tiny tale among many. The design asthetic is amazingly strong: even when the story loses some of its lustre, or the shooting gets a little monotonous, there’s always a visual detail or incredible character waiting to pull you right back into the crazy world that’s on offer.

I suppose the best way I have of summing Zeno Clash up in a mildly entertaining fashion is this: it’s like being punched in the face by Salvador Dali, who’s wearing a gigantic elephant mask, and then getting to punch him back, and hit him with a big hammer and stuff. And who could say no to that? (Except maybe Dali, I suppose.)

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