Zeno Clash II
Exploring Zenozoik, the world Zeno Clash II, is a bit like wandering around inside a Surrealist painting. Nothing makes sense. You recognize things that are remotely like what you know in the real world, but there’s something off about them. “Humans”, birdmen, and other strange creatures live alongside each other in the city of Halstedom, which itself seems completely illogical in its layout. Imagine the Mos Eisley cantina freaks, but spread out over a vast country. It feels like a feverish, inescapable dream, streets twisting in random directions, culminating in dead ends. Staircases twirl around towers, leading nowhere in particular. Instead of grenades, you toss flaming, exploding skulls. It’s a colorful shock to the eyes and your mind, and a welcome relief from drab real world settings or generic fantasy locations.
The player assumes the role of Ghat, the protagonist from the first game. He and his “sister” Rimat, an antagonist in the first game, attempt to free their Father-Mother from prison. Father-Mother is a strange creature that’s a mix of man, woman and…chicken, who raised Ghat, Rimat and many others as its children. In order to understand what’s happening in this sequel, playing the first game is advisable. There’s a handy prologue that explains what happened previously, but it still won’t make a lot of sense. And to be honest, even if you have played part one, it’s still difficult to figure out exactly what’s going on.
Besides playing a much bigger role, Golem is also the main antagonist this time as he (it?) tries to prevent Ghat and Rimat from freeing Father-Mother from her/his prison. This culminates in them travelling across Zenozoik, to gather allies and discover the Golem’s secret. There is a huge reveal about midway in the course of the story, but it’s not elaborated on. It’s left there as a teaser, maybe left for a third game. And that’s ultimately problem with the story. It’s too vague and incomprehensible. There are lots of hints strewn about as to what kind of place Zenozoik actually is, but by the end you are none the wiser. On the one hand, it’s good to see a game that doesn’t revert to copious exposition, and trusts its audience to think for itself. On the other hand, it feels unfulfilling to not get a solid ending, although a more in-depth and thorough analysis of the plot could reveal what it’s all about.
It’s best described as a first-person brawler, as you engage enemies in hand-to-hand combat. Occasionally Ghat has guns and melee weapons at his disposal, but most of the time he has to make do with his fists. The combat relies on the player combining attacks and creating combos, but makes a rudimentary mistake as it introduces all this in the tutorial, and then simply throws the player out there. Instead, they ought to have introduced the various combinations along the way. In the end, though, it doesn’t matter all that much, because the combat feels rather shallow. Combos aren’t necessary most of the time, as the player can just waltz around the enemies, throwing simple punches, hoping they don’t die from boredom before reaching the end.
The combat’s shallowness is further alleviated when you receive the chain, a surprisingly effective crowd-control weapon. It’s what it sounds like: A metal chain that you use to smash enemies’ faces into pulp. The combat simply lacks depth, which is ironic as it seems to be the opposite of what ACE Team was trying to achieve. Until you get that chain, though, fights can sometimes be quite difficult because enemies gang up on you, which feels a bit cheap. Instead of making every fight a unique encounter, ACE tries to make it difficult just by tossing more enemies at you. An even worse aspect is that most of the fights are not really contextualized. They seem like random encounters, rather than fights that are important to the narrative. Now, emphasis should be on “seem”, as many of the characters you encounter are unique enough to be important, but their stories are not told in any way, so they end up being obstacles instead of further fleshing out the world.
It also has lots of little technical flaws that take you out of the experience. For instance, Ghat will sometimes respawn within inches of where he died, which is problematic when that place is next to a vertical cliff, resulting in Ghat repeatedly falling to his death. Sometimes, he even falls out of the world, stuck in limbo, until he finally smashes into some invisible floor. Disregarding pure bugs, there’s also something off during combat. Maybe it’s the first-person perspective that’s the root cause, but it can often be difficult to figure exactly when Ghat can actually hit something, and when he’ll just be punching the empty air.
During select fights you are also able to call in two allies, who are found among some of Father-Mother’s other children, most of whom left after the revelation of their origins in the original. It’s a good idea that ought to have made the fight sequences less tedious. The problem is that often allies will simply not show up for mysterious reasons, or they’ll spawn at the other end of the area. Sure, it adds an element of unpredictability, but during some of the more difficult fights it’s a huge frustration that you can’t be sure whether your allies show up or not. It’s also strange that their health doesn’t regenerate between fights if you move between them too quickly. For example, if one of them has taken severe damage in a fight, they’ll only have a fraction of it left in the next one, rendering them pretty much useless as they die quickly. Having very slow regenerative health can work in an RPG, when fights are few and far between, but for an action game like this, it simply doesn’t.
To get these allies to fight for you, you also need to have appropriate level in the skill “leadership”. Ghat acquires skill points by activating objects that look like totem poles, with an animal skull up top, but it’s never directly explained how the skill system works It’s easy to just meander, looking for the poles but never finding them. It’s a shame, because it feels like you’re missing out on a lot of backstory.
They’ve made the world bigger and tried to make the world feel more alive than in the original. And yet, the city of Halstedom, for example, doesn’t really warrant exploration. While it’s certainly different from other fictional cities in video games, there aren’t all that many nooks and crannies to get lost in. The original was a more linear experience, but somehow it actually felt bigger. In Zeno Clash II you get a world map right from the start, where practically all the locations you’ll be visiting are marked, and where they are in relation to each other. It makes sense from a narrative perspective, as Ghat has visited these places before, but when you know that it only takes about ten minutes to walk from Halstedom in the south to the Desert in the north, it takes some of the excitement out of it. The original felt like a true adventure, even though you were magically transported between areas, as you had to fill in the blanks in Ghat’s journey. Now, the Desert, for instance, has been reduced to a pitiful little sandbox, as opposed to the dangerous adversary it seemed to be in the original.
One point where ACE Team should have done better, especially for a sequel, is in the voice acting and writing department. The voice acting is particularly bad, as the actors don’t seem to have any interest in bringing any particular personality to their characters, or any emotion to the situation. It seems like they’re reading straight from the script. Instead of focusing on creating a more non-linear world, ACE ought to have put this effort into pure production values instead. It can seem like a minor issue, but when characters don’t seem like they care what happens, why should you?
It’s interesting to note that game is made by a Chilean developer, something that’s quite rare in this business. I don’t know enough about Chilean culture to say whether there’s something specifically Chilean about the game – apart from a not so hidden reference to Easter Island – but it’s refreshing to see more Latin American developers developing video games. When I look at how different Japanese and “Western” games are, I can’t help but wonder whether Latin America, in time, could bring something totally different to the market, basing their stories in local folklore for instance. Sure, the cultural differences aren’t as massive as between Japan and Europe/North America, but it’s still different enough to warrant attention. In their latest video, Extra Credits suggest that countries such as Argentina and Chile, will be producing more independent titles with unique cultural fingerprints. They don’t go into great detail as to what that entails, but it should be interesting to follow.
That’s why it’s such a shame to see Zeno Clash II fail, because ACE has mostly succeeded in creating an interesting setting – but the joy of exploration is quickly tempered by the game’s reliance on fighting mechanics that are too simple, and too rough to be engaging. This is a prime example of the undesirable outcome that occurs when a game’s strong setting exposes its lack of entertaining mechanics. Like the nightmare that is Halstedom you run around looking for substance, but find that it’s all superficial. Like a feverish dream, you strive to find some sort of meaning, but find nothing.