Once the shadow monsters in a dark temple-like building located at the end of the world are defeated, your loyal companion wearily says, “It sure would be nice to go back to a normal place.”
“Normal” does not exist in Zeno Clash. The place she refers to is a ramshackle city where deformed creatures sit at the bar and drink rooster blood. Thieves roam the streets and violence is a way of life. Everything is off-kilter and twisted, like a cross between the Wild West and Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal. It’s also a place that the protagonist Ghat is running from. He’s facing the wrath of dozens of brothers and sisters after he murdered his Mother-Father, an incomprehensible beast with the attributes of a bird, piercing yellow eyes and dark cloak.
There’s never been a game with the sense of style that Zeno Clash has, and if it weren’t for the announced sequel, then it’d be safe to say that there never will be a game like it. Every environment oozes mood and atmosphere, from the abstract forests to the discomforting city. Obviously, style alone isn’t enough to make a good game. The brutal hand-to-hand combat mixed with some shooting is more than enough to guarantee a heaping of substance to go along with the memorable art direction.
When ACE Team, a group of Chilean modmakers, set out to create their debut game, they likely didn’t have the resources of the big studios. Despite a lack of cinematic set pieces and elaborately scripted events, the original PC version and now the XBLA Ultimate Edition succeeds with its gritty, sometimes ugly, fisticuffs. Like a fighting game, most battles start with a stylish “versus” screen that shows who Ghat is going up against. Some of the typical foes include an beefy elephant humanoid and a colorful parrot-looking punk. During the many fights, each punch seems to carry weight and connecting with a quick counter or a devastating finishing blow feels like something truly happened rather than the opponent’s health bar simply dipping down. It feels real and raw, like a fight should.
Combat isn’t fast like in Street Fighter , and when a weapon is obtained, it’s nothing like playing Modern Warfare. With Ghat often outnumbered, it’s not just possible to fight cheaply: it’s encouraged. Knocking out an enemy and kicking him/her/it mercilessly on the ground is a recommended tactic. Hiding behind one enemy as a massive beast hurls itself forward is another way to go about fighting. Staying and fighting in one spot is a sure-fire way to lose, so floating like a butterfly rather than stinging like a bee is the best method. Dodges, blocks and counters make things easier, as does pummeling the furthest enemy and waiting for the others to close the distance to join the fray. Unfortunately, the A.I. is underwhelming, so it’s sometimes easy to take advantage of the simple-minded enemies.
While hand-to-hand combat is the bread and butter of Zeno Clash, there are a number of weapons such as a hammer, the dual fish gun or a trusty grenade launcher. The weapons do a great job of spicing up the combat, but despite appearances, the game is not a first person shooter per se. With the weak dual fish guns, which are essentially pistols, it can take more than ten shots to kill someone. The ammo clips are tiny, like the rifle that only holds three bullets, so hand-to-hand fighting is often the way to go.
The combat is simple and doesn’t grow old despite a limited amount of moves, but that could be because the well-told narrative comes to a close in just a few hours. Fortunately, some additions to the Xbox 360 version, and some features have been around since the PC version, add some much-needed replayability. The most significant are the tower challenges that feature a number of timed battles in an arena-like setting. Co-operative mode is available and while nobody was playing on Live, split screen is another option. A new mode, dubbed “Zeno Rush” are timed stages from the single-player level with a bit of a twist. Ghat comes equipped with a hammer that shaves off a few seconds from the timer after each hit. With a price of 1200 points, the otherwise short game can be extended for quite a while.
During one of the later stages in the single-player campaign, melee combat isn’t even possible. Ghat, along with some companions, are slowly floating down a moonlit river. The night sky is purple, making the oncoming enemies easy to spot. Space is limited on the boat, so it’s almost like an on-rails shooter, although it’s not particularly exciting. There’s little threat of death and the gun needs to be reloaded so often that the pace is slowed to that of a pleasure cruise. Despite the lack of exhilaration, it’s a haunting, beautiful journey. The music is perfect. The water is inviting. Lulls in the action are filled with fascinating dialogue and plot development. In moments like this, the style becomes the substance. I’m totally fine with that when it’s done so well.