Fist, Meet Face: Zeno Clash 2

As always, you can click on screenshots to view larger versions.

I played the original Zeno Clash before starting this blog, but I did mention it in my first proper post. That post was about why some seriously flawed games are still worth playing, if they’re interesting enough — in fact, they can be more worthy than a solidly-constructed but generic title. But Zeno Clash is not seriously flawed; I simply cited it as an example of a game that displays uncommon imagination. Made by Chilean developers ACE Team (the same developers responsible for the very different but equally strange Rock of Ages), it takes the mechanics of classic brawlers like Streets of Rage or Double Dragon and puts them in a first-person game. This works far better than expected, and would have been interesting enough on its own, but Zeno Clash also takes place in a bizarre and beautiful world full of surreal architecture and landscapes, and populated by all manner of bird-men and other hybrid species. As I played, each location provided some new, breathtaking vista or strange fauna to behold, and the story was even weirder. It is certainly a unique gaming experience.

For all that, however, the playable sections are small, extremely linear affairs, linked by narration and cutscenes. Not unlike Metro 2033, in fact, but the locations in Zeno Clash are much smaller. Later, ACE Team confided that they had originally envisioned an open-world game, where the player could wander freely, getting into fights and otherwise interacting with the locals, but they soon realized this was too ambitious for their first game. So they focused on the fighting mechanics, and built a linear game instead. With Zeno Clash 2, they returned to their original vision of an open-world game with similar mechanics. It’s safe to say I was excited (even though I’m playing it almost a year after release… I am slow to get through my backlog, as always).

Reading others’ reviews on release, it was clear that many people got a little too excited, picturing a massive open world like that of Skyrim (which I’ve written many posts about, incidentally). Truthfully, that was never going to happen. ACE Team are still a small, independent developer, and while Zeno Clash 2 is impressively large given their small team, it certainly can’t compare to the big-budget open-world games many of us have played. Still, the game’s smallish areas consisting mostly of narrow paths and separated from one another by simple loading screens are a tad disappointing. Traveling great distances in the world can be done in minutes, with only the movement of the sun or moon on the loading screen signifying the long trek between playable areas. This means that revisiting the first game’s most distant locales no longer feels like the epic journey it was the first time around.

But when I tempered my expectations, I found much to like about the new world design. The locales are still absolutely gorgeous, and there are quite a few of them, even if they’re not all accessible at the beginning. I happily snapped far more screenshots than I could hope to fit in this post, as each new place I visited presented more glorious sights. There are even a few places, like the rolling hills of the Rath-bird Fields, which almost feel like the truly open landscape we all hoped for, and I ran the length and width of them, marveling at the scenery. When I wasn’t getting into a fistfight, of course.

Despite switching from the Source Engine to the Unreal Engine, the actual fighting in Zeno Clash 2 is nearly unchanged from the first game. Which is fine, because it was already excellent. When I say it borrows the mechanics from old side-scrolling brawlers, I mean that almost literally: each opponent uses one of several recognizable move sets, stunned enemies enable grabs, throws, and other special moves, and there are a bunch of limited-use weapons that can be picked up. These are suitably weird, including clubs and hammers made from twisted roots or chunks of crystal, and a variety of low-tech firearms, including a pistol carved from a fish skull. But these can only be used for a short time before breaking or running out of ammo, and then it’s back to fisticuffs. Each enemy displays a health bar after being hit, just like in the classic brawlers, and uppercuts and kicks send enemies flying a comical distance. In many battles, there’s even a mock-up “versus” screen that appears at the start, showing portraits of protagonist Ghat and his allies lined up against those of his enemies.

What’s remarkable is how well it works in first-person. A few key additions to the classic brawler design, including dodges and parries, compensate for the lack of jumping moves, and the ability to lock onto an enemy makes aiming easier, letting the player focus on timing and stringing together combos. I was pleased to discover that Zeno Clash 2 includes a tutorial that meets my criteria: accessed separately from the game’s menu, it can be played at any time, and walks the player through the various moves and combos while simultaneously providing the background story for the game. This is excellent, as it let me go back and practice tough moves, or refresh my memory when I forgot how to perform a long combo chain. In the first game, the tutorial was interspersed with the story as a series of flashbacks, but it didn’t give me enough chance to practice, and I didn’t feel like I’d truly mastered the combat until I tried the challenge modes after finishing the main game. Here, I was able to get up to speed quickly and use my newfound fighting skills while progressing through the game’s story.

Speaking of story, the plot picks up right where the first game left off, which should be welcome news to those who felt the original didn’t offer enough closure. I don’t wish to spoil the story of either game, so I’ll just say that Zeno Clash 2 once again concerns Ghat and his motley family — the spawn of the hermaphroditic creature known as Father-Mother — and it answers the questions the first game left open and a few more besides, including some revelations about the world of Zenozoik. It’s a much longer tale than that of the first game, too, and has a more satisfying conclusion.

All that said, Zeno Clash 2 doesn’t quite capture the first game’s atmosphere and sense of mystery. Perhaps the biggest issue is that it feels much more like a game. The open world comes complete with quest markers pointing the way to the next objective, and there are even a few sidequests to perform for the denizens of Zenozoik. Ghat can spend points to upgrade his strength, stamina, health, and leadership (used to recruit allies) as he progresses through the game. There are several collectibles scattered around, some of which unlock semi-secret, optional content. All of these are tried-and-true features of quite a few other games, and they serve to diminish Zeno Clash 2’s sheer oddness a bit. The first game, while strictly linear, often featured playable sections with no combat, simply to give context to Ghat’s journey. I never knew what to expect next; every new segment offered up not only new sights and sounds but often completely new mechanics as well. By contrast, Zeno Clash 2 feels more homogenized, with its locations that differ in appearance but not in play.

Which isn’t to say Zeno Clash 2 doesn’t have its share of new ideas. It introduces several secondary weapons that are especially imaginative, used both in combat and for solving puzzles. My favorite is the Sun-Moon Gauntlet, which requires lining up enemies with the sun or moon before unleashing a powerful attack. Then there are the aforementioned allies. Ghat’s sister Rimat is his constant companion for this adventure, but he can recruit one other ally from amongst his family and friends, provided his leadership skill is high enough. I was pleased to see the women leading the way here: Ghat’s older sister Henae, along with Deadra, his love interest from the first game, are among the most powerful allies he can recruit, and some of the toughest opponents are women as well. I did find it hard to tell how much better each ally truly was, however, as I was usually locked in a one-on-one fistfight while they were brawling somewhere off-screen.

The voice acting is the other major shortcoming. Some voices are good, but many are strange and hard to understand, and a few are simply bad. Rimat is the worst offender, although after traveling with her for the length of the adventure her voice acting started to make a strange kind of sense. Maybe sounding sullen and sarcastic all the time is simply Rimat’s thing — there are certainly weirder behaviors among the Zenos. But I doubt others will agree. I did wonder if the original voices might have been in Spanish, given the Chilean development team, but I couldn’t find any evidence for this on the internet and was certainly unable to find any way to switch the language, so my guess is that the English cast is the original.

I must stress, however, how minor these complaints are. Sure, Zeno Clash 2 feels more game-like when compared to the original’s strange trip, but it’s still got unique, satisfying combat in a gorgeous and crazy world. And I have not stressed enough how fantastic that world is, even in the small chunks available. It’s not merely beautiful. It’s bursting with imagination and variety. The anarchic city of Halstedom is a mishmash of buildings sprouting at random angles, interspersed with the odd head-shaped tower. The desert, far from a barren wasteland, is filled with pink dandelion fluffs floating in the breeze, while rabbit-like creatures and oversized insects wander about. In another location, massive, gleaming metal arches rise above ancient mechanical devices. Giant brass horns spew huge soap bubbles above the rainbow-colored hills of the Rath-bird Fields. Every single location is stunning to behold, and the crazy denizens, peaceful and otherwise, are made to match. Relatively normal-looking humans with cool outfits and hairstyles walk beside creatures with a painter’s palette for a lower jaw, or an elephant’s trunk sprouting from their face, or some even weirder feature. And odds are that, at some point in the adventure, I’d get to punch these creatures in the face.

With all that in there, plus a lengthy and revelatory story, I had soon forgotten any disappointments and was just enjoying the ride. I recommend you do the same. In fact, I highly recommend playing both games, if you haven’t yet. There isn’t anything else out there like them, and sometimes it’s important to spice up a regular gaming diet with something truly weird.

And also to punch crab-men in the face. That’s important too.

Zeno Clash 2 is available for Playstation 3, Xbox 360, and PC via Steam.

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