Zeno Clash

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Save the world by beating the crap out of colorful creatures.

PC Release: April 21, 2009

By Ian Coppock

SOMETIMES CAFFEINE IS A THING AND IT CAUSES PEOPLE TO GAIN A LOT OF ENERGY ALL THE SUDDEN AND WANT TO JUST RUN OUTSIDE AND GO AROUND AND RUN OUTSIDE AND MAYBE EVEN GET INTO A FIGHT WITH ANOTHER PERSON NOT JUST ANY PERSON AND ALSO NOT NECESSARILY A FIGHT MAYBE AN ATHLETIC COMPETITION LIKE BASE JUMPING OR RUNNING OR PUNCHING THINGS REALLY REALLY REALLY HARD HEY LOOK ZENO CLASH A GAME ABOUT PUNCHING!

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The only thing more random than that intro is a video game about a man who punches hermaphroditic bird-men: that game is Zeno Clash. A first-person brawler developed by the Chilean studio ACE Team, Zeno Clash sticks players in a colorful fantasy world and encourages them to punch all of it. The title was built in Valve’s Source engine and released over eight years ago; since then, Zeno Clash has enjoyed a long-lasting legacy as one of gaming’s most fun (and most eccentric) brawlers.

Zeno Clash begins in earnest when its protagonist, a pugilist named Ghat, kills the hermaphroditic bird creature in charge of his hometown (yep, that’s a real sentence). Accompanied by his close friend Deadra, Ghat skips town ahead of the bird-man’s many angry children and takes refuge in the wild. All the while, he remains mum on why he committed the murder, giving Deadra the cold shoulder as the pair strike further and further away from civilization.

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Ghat refuses to spill the beans on why he made himself a fugitive.

Zeno Clash emphasizes first-person punching; players are given a few tips and tricks on how to score knockouts before being thrust into fights to loosen some teeth. Players are often forced to put ’em up against 3-5 enemy combatants at once, all of whom have as few compunctions about kicks and knockouts as Ghat. Players can punch and kick their foes as well as executive more creative moves like throwing them into the air. Ghat can also use hand grenades and, on occasion, powerful guns (if one can call a pea-vomiting piranha mounted on a stick a gun).

Zeno Clash‘s fighting system lacks the polish of later-gen fighting games, but that hardly saps its fun. It’s easy for players of all skill levels to pick this game up and start punching and throwing like a pro. Zeno Clash‘s enemies generally aren’t that hard to fight one-on-one, but players can count on plenty of challenging brawls against multiple foes. Additionally, Ghat will be forced to go up against heavy enemies, wild animals, and colorful bosses. Zeno Clash paces all of these encounters at an even clip, letting players acclimate to its ever-increasing difficulty. It’s a fun, smoothly implemented experience.

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That must’ve been one crazy rave.

Zeno Clash puts just as much soul into its world as its fighting. The land of Zenozoik is a bizarre place indeed, one rife with mutated animals and people who seem to get their clothing from the local junkyard. Zeno Clash‘s eccentric aesthetic goes beyond crazy characters; the game looks like something Dr. Seuss might’ve drawn if he’d ever dropped acid. Zenozoik is rife with so many goofy rock formations and oddly shaped trees that one could be forgiven for mistaking it for a messed up The Lorax adaptation.

Unlike so many video games that look weird just for the sake of looking weird, Zeno Clash‘s unorthodox visuals have a purpose. They go beyond simply giving the game a surreal vibe; each character has a design that suits their role in the story. It’s easy to tell that each character and level in Zeno Clash is a passion project rather than a cynical attempt at novelty. Their designs are endearing despite their strangeness and invite players to see what else is out in the land of Zenozoik.

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Ha, cool.

If Zeno Clash‘s visuals have a flaw, it’s that they haven’t aged well. Objects look conspicuously polygonal and in-cutscene character animations are stiff as boards. The textures could stand a lot of sharpening, as they too have grown old. ACE Team could also have done a better job with item placement, as lots of objects haphazardly clip through each other and dull the sense of being in such a weird world. The game looks a bit shoddy even by 2009 standards.

Fortunately, Zeno Clash‘s options menu is much more refined than its visage. The game borrows most of the visual fidelity options found in other Source titles and allows players to rebind PC controls. The only option that needs an update is the resolution menu: the highest res that players can choose for this game is a measly 1360 x 1024. There’s no option for the standard 1920 x 1080 resolution, so players running a 2K monitor (that is to say, the overwhelming majority of PC players) are out of luck.

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Oosh.

Even though Zeno Clash manages to impose some order on its crazy visuals, the same can’t be said of the game’s plot. For a start, the structure of Zeno Clash‘s narrative is pretty shaky. The story buries itself in endless flashbacks and cutaways, making it easy for players to forget where they’re actually at in the plot. The game also has an annoying tendency to focus on irrelevant details; Ghat and Deadra walk around in the woods, get jumped by a crazy person, and then spend three flashback missions learning that loon’s backstory. These flashbacks rarely have any pertinence to the main plot, which makes them feel gratuitous.

Additionally, though Ghat’s motivations for killing Father-Mother (the bird man, and yes, that’s his/her name) are believable, the game gives no good reason for his keeping it a secret. Well, no good reason that the game’s awkward dialogue provides. ACE Team gets a bit of a break for its writing because English is not these devs’ first language, but that still doesn’t change the story’s lack of organization. The voice acting underpinning this story is also hit-and-miss. Ghat’s voice actor sounds just like Elias Toufexis and is almost as good, but Deadra’s voice actress is more stilted in her delivery. Zeno Clash‘s music is also serviceable, but that’s about it.

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“Oh no….” (said in a bored voice).

Zeno Clash‘s plot raises many more questions than it answers. The game deals far too much in characters whose motivations are unknowable. Indeed, players could be forgiven for thinking that this title isn’t its own story so much as a doormat for Zeno Clash II… because it is. To be fair, a lot of video games end up being glitzy concept demos for a far grander title down the line, but most of those games at least try to have a complete story. Zeno Clash presents a partial story. It’s a good intro for a few novel characters, but that’s about it.

Despite its narrative shortcomings, Zeno Clash remains a fun brawler. Fighting game fans should consider getting the title if they’re willing to stomach sub par storytelling and small resolutions. Players who get Zeno Clash can also count on being introduced to one of gaming’s weirdest worlds: a place whose visuals contain heart and passion even if the story leaves a lot to be desired on both of those fronts. Get the game, give punching a two-legged pig a try, and if that sounds like fun, punch everything else the game has in its corner.

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You can buy Zeno Clash here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.