Sunday, May 03, 2009

Zeno Clash Review

Zeno Clash, developed and published by ACE Team.
The Good: Truly unique setting with outlandish enemies, satisfying melee combat
The Not So Good: Short, linear, lacks multiplayer, no manual saves, can’t skip cut scenes
What say you? This distinctive action game is a cut above your typical first person shooter: 7/8

Tired of generic World War II strategy games? Want some spice in your first person shooting? Well we have the game for you! Zeno Clash takes place in an alternative prehistoric society with bird-men, elephant-men, and explosive squirrels wearing parachutes. Makes sense to me! The game places a heavy focus on melee combat, something that countless action games have either ignored or poorly executed. Will Zeno Clash be a polished and unforgettable gaming experienced, or a horrible mutant bird-man-thing (or a man-bear-pig)?

The most readily apparent thing about Zeno Clash is its unique look: there’s nothing quite like it. The developer has created an imaginative setting with strange beasts around every turn. Generic it is not, from the detailed and wonderfully designed enemies to the weapon models. It’s a far-fetched prehistoric world of fancy, and you never quite know what to expect around the next bend. For gamers jaded on wave after wave of Nazis, Zeno Clash is a very refreshing change. The levels are obviously linear in most cases, but the environment is usually believable enough outside of your set path, and forested areas are always more interesting to look at than dank metal hallways. The level of eye candy is quite high and the compelling imagination of the developers is shown around every bend. The sound design is less original, featuring a pleasing enough score to go along with the fanciful action. Being a foreign title, I was not expecting much from the English voice acting, and I must say that the quality was above my lowered expectations: thankfully, this is no Men of War. The non-cut-scene voices are repetitive, as are the battle sounds, but ACE Team has crafted a fantastic world in which to punch the crap out of a mutant elephant.

Zeno Clash is a bit on the short side: it took me only five hours to complete the single player campaign. Given the budget-level price of the game and the outstanding supplementary elements, namely the setting and the combat, the relatively small amount of content can be partially forgiven. Since the levels are very linear and you encounter the same enemies each time you play, there is really no reason to go through the campaign more than once. When you are done, you can play through the challenge mode where you engage a set of increasingly more difficult enemies in a room; since you cannot customize the roster of opponents, this feature is quite limited. In addition there are other shortcomings (this is where I complain about minor things that add up to make an incomplete title): there is no manually saving of your progress (and only two autosave slots), no multiplayer (which could have been quite engaging), and no skipping the cut scenes. The tutorial to the game is introduced in dream sequences during the campaign; it does a good job teaching all of the controls and I can honestly say that I’ve never had a tutorial where I am shooting at freshly beheaded chickens before.

Zeno Clash takes the standard first person shooter control scheme and slightly increases the complexity by introducing melee-focused commands. Spacebar is your block button, and it can be used with other movement and action commands to pull off some advanced moves, like grab (and then throw or attack), breaking blocks, dodging punches, and repelling kicks. You have standard and more powerful attacks to deal with enemy units, and the combinations make for varied and interesting combat (I was half-expecting a “haduken” thrown in there for good measure), much more so than your typical game that has one punch and that’s it. The game does use the same button for targeting an enemy as picking up an object, which is a strange design decision and comes in to play in a negative fashion. You are not limited to melee attacks, either, as Zeno Clash has prehistoric variations of most modern weapons: pistols, grenade launchers, rifles. All of the weapons have infinite ammo and only require reload times; I actually like this approach, especially since it’s usually way more effective to punch someone instead of shooting them. It is easy to switch between weapons and melee combat and the game automatically locks on the closest enemy when you start swinging. The melee combat in Zeno Clash is very well design and it’s far more interesting than any other shooter.

Zeno Clash features some basic but effective artificial intelligence in the form of some crazy freakin’ animals. The game basically tells you the behavior pattern of each enemy you encounter through the cut scenes, so at least Zeno Clash is upfront about it. The developers obviously have a bird fetish, as Zeno Clash features bird-men, bug-birds, and rath-birds, in addition to elephant-men, frog-things, and just plain weirdness in various other forms. And you can’t forget the parachuting explosive squirrels. You will encounter the same exact enemies multiple times, often in the same level. This could either be laziness, humor, or maliciousness. You are always outnumber by the enemies (usually three against one); this is where Zeno Clash derives most of its difficulty from, as individual enemies are not too difficult to deal with. It is fun to punch, block, and kick your way to freedom and pleasing to disarm enemies and then use their weapons against them. The linear level design doesn’t give you a whole lot of tactical freedom, but since the emphasis is on action anyway, this is not a big deal. Zeno Clash is certainly entertaining during its short run and it always features something new to beat to a pulp.

Zeno Clash delivers exactly what you want from an independent game: originality. The game supplies originality in two main areas: the combat and the environment. Zeno Clash is the rare action game that actually has fun, enjoyable, and mostly non-repetitive melee combat, thanks to the simple control scheme that offers multiple counters and combos to keep things fresh. The setting is absolutely outstanding: something original is around every turn and you never know what crazy mutant enemy will appear next. The unique nature of Zeno Clash pulls you in and keeps you interested throughout the game’s short five-hour campaign. There isn’t much content beyond the campaign, though: the challenge mode against a horde of enemies in an empty room is only slightly interesting, and the lack of online combat is distressing because it probably would have been really sweet. Zeno Clash also has restrictions on saving your progress and you have to sit through each and every cut scene, which slows down the game flow significantly. Still, the two strengths of Zeno Clash are strong enough to almost ignore its shortcomings. If you don’t like a heavy focus on melee combat, then Zeno Clash probably won’t appeal to you, but everyone else should definitely check it out.