There’s one question that hovers nebulously over Zeno Clash like the Sword of Damocles, ready to drop and sentence it to commercial and critical death. It’s one I can answer happily, with an elbow to the face, and uppercut to the chin and a kick while they’re on the floor. Yes, the combat in Zeno Clash works. Often, it does more than merely work, and you’ll end up feeling like the star of a martial arts B-movie as you make quick work of a group of four or five other combatants. It’s a good thing, too, as for the majority of the four hour single player story, you’ll be using every hard bit of your body on rat-men, bird-men, mole-men, elephant-men and what I think were pig-men. They weren’t all anthropomorphic, but most were. Although one of them obviously didn’t really understand the concept, and just put a pot on his head. That’s not anthropomorphic, that’s just good sense. Pity he’s unconscious and bloody at my feet, then.
Zeno Clash is mental. It’s by and far the most bonkers game I’ve ever played, not just because of the denizens of the world, or the fact the sky changes colour at the drop of a hat, or that you’re never quite sure whether you’re in the present or the past. There’s something very fleshy about the world, where everything from the (handily) pulsating fruit that you eat to regain health to the buildings themselves seem to be molded out of the same stuff as the people. It’s not just that; what you see of the world itself seems to be a microcosm of what is really there, just a tiny, focused look at this world ACE Team have created. This is in part due to the often quite obvious linearity of the levels, highlighted most memorably when you see the characters climb up and over obstacles that you yourself have no way of overcoming. It’s ok, though, because there are faces to punch. Zeno Clash is quick to remind you of what it is, with Street Fighter-esque VS screens coming up before every fight. They prepare, amuse and entertain you, and while they may break the illusion, it was never all that enforced anyway.
The game is short, but it gives off the impression that it’s been trimmed heftily, creating a streamlined experience that only begins to grate near the end, when you begin to revisit similar fights to some earlier scenes. This is only a minor frustration because the rest of the game has been so startlingly original. The Corwid, a forest dwelling people who have chosen a life free from reality and reason, are a particular highlight, because each is so brilliantly strange. One eats people, because that is what he feels he needs to do. One is eaten, because that’s what he needs to do. Another thinks it’s best to be invisible, so if he doesn’t want to be seen by a particular person, he cuts out their eyes. There’s a great moment when you find a particularly interesting Corwid who walks in a straight line, stopping at nothing. Manouvering enemies into his path only to watch them crushed beneath his massive feet was particularly satisfying, if only because he seemed so incidental to the level.
Similarly, the few boss fights that are thrown at you are generally fun, with the final act being slightly less so. Flying squirrel bombs is a term that’s been bandied around the game, but they really do define the general tone behind it. An interesting dynamic is created between dealing with the explosive nut-hoarders, or sniping at the guy throwing them at you. The fact that guy is on a giant giraffe/elephant/dinosaur and huge mutated whale respectively only adds to the absurdity of it all. And it is absurd. They plot is vague at best, with huge chunks in the narrative missing. There is little reason for where you’re going and there’s little motivation apart from ‘run away or die’. Something so basic works to begin with, but really it’s just a vehicle for your tourism in this strange world. Kneeing people in the head is great fun, but what you remember from Zeno Clash are the locations and the characters.
The single player story is not the sole offering. Challenge levels are also on offer, with multiple levels of increasing difficulty and variety available. Leaderboards will be kept once the game is live, charting how long each section took you, but really it’s a rather smart move by ACE Team. While the main game is thoroughly enjoyable and accomplished, there is very little incentive to go back, bar a few reward-less achievements that you didn’t pick up first time around. The combat, though, is visceral and addictive, and it would be a shame not to be able to just revisit the game to crack some skulls. Challenges provide that, and even though each ‘floor’ of the Tower has a set amount and type of enemies, what you can do to them varies wildly, and I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of punching the weird flightless bird things into each other. The Challenge Rooms provide longevity, and enough reason to go back to Zeno Clash after the story is over. Leaderboards may be incentive to some, but the draw of the fighting is far more likely to bring you back.
Zeno Clash is surprisingly accomplished for a first-time Indie title. There are a few minor flaws, but the fact that I remained thoroughly entertained throughout the main game, and enough to go back to each Challenge level multiple times is a testament to the fact that they really don’t matter. The final act can get slightly flakey, but that’s only because the rest of the game holds it to such a fine standard. The voice acting can grate a little, but for the most part it’s wildly better than most Triple-A titles, not least because of the variety of voices, from Father-Mother’s dual chorus to Golem’s deep boom. You should play Zeno Clash just to experience its world, even if you’re not enticed by the satisfying crack of elbow against face.