Review: Zeno Clash

20 May

VGD_sideAn unfortunately named game.  One would suspect the “zenos” are clashing in Zeno Clash — I’m not sure what that would entail.  What there is is punching, kicking, shooting, and harder punching — what we have here is a fully functional and intuitive-feeling first-person brawler.  I wouldn’t say it’s innovative, but it’s original — and that’s what counts in my books.

The story that gives a hint of reason to all the faces you’ll be punching isn’t really worth mentioning — there are maybe some deep analogies, but I get the feeling the actual subject matter is supposed to be strange and nonsensical.  It’s relatable to Alice in Wonderland; a bunch of nonsense held together by a thin narrative structure and a nagging mystery.

While it’s hard to say anything about the content of the story other than “it’s weird”, the way it’s delivered and ingrained in gameplay deserves some hearty praise.  There is a present tense adventure underway in the form of a sort of getaway, and there are a series of flashbacks that explain exactly why you are running away.  It’s almost shaming to think that an independent game made in Chile plays with its narrative/gameplay structure more than any other game I’ve played and can remember.  I mean, it’s all very simple — we’ve all heard of flashbacks — but I think it’s the first time I’ve seen flashbacks used effectively (maybe at all outside of a cutscene).

But the meat on these narrative bones is first-person brawler combat.  Blows feel like they connect and thump flesh, and enemies ragdoll from your haymakers while managing to avoid looking silly.  All the while you feel like you’re cleaning up.  What in Condemned felt like stiff animation cycles here feels like a bare-knuckle boxing match between you and bizarre gangs of pig-men and crazy people.

Things don’t get too deep combat-wise, but the abilities at your disposal feel very wide-ranging.  You can perform a simple jab combo by left clicking twice then holding left mouse for a second.  When enemies are on the ground you can kick them.  You can grab weakened enemies Condemned-style and knee them in the face repeatedly and then throw them in a direction of your choosing.  Powerful punches are charged and delivered with the right mouse button, and E lets you lock on to specific enemies (so you can more easily circle-strafe them).  Block is spacebar, and if timed correctly allows you the chance to do a powerful counter-attack.  Performing some of these actions in different directions allows for things like dodging, running to deliver an elbow to the face, or delivering a haymaker while feinting backwards.  This, ladies and gentlemen, is how you construct a combat system.

The biggest problem with the game is when they give you guns.  There is a certain boss character you fight several times which should be neat, but because of the so-so gunplay portions of the fights, become tedious and almost boring.  There is a moment where the gunplay becomes interesting in an on-rails section, but it never really comes to a head.  Guns can be interesting when mixed into a fight (I found myself performing running-elbows to disable gunners and get them into melee, or to steal their gun), but at the end of the day having a gun in your hands means you’re not punching someone, and that’s what this game does best.

To top it all off, there is a small arena/time attack mode — exactly the sort of thing you’d want in a game where the core mechanics are so versatile.  Because (and maybe I’m not making this clear) wacky story and neat visual styling aside, Zeno Clash is all about punching faces.  So please, produce more henchmen for me to pulverize.

Did I mention this thing was made in Chile?  I don’t know if these guys are just special, but please — more games from Chile.  These people have the right idea.

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