Zeno Clash is one of the strangest, most original first-person games I've played in years. It focuses on elaborate, in-your-face melee combat, and it's set in a surreal, prehistoric fantasy world that's utterly weird, sometimes almost uncomfortably so. This Source Engine-powered downloadable game's production values have a few rough edges, but it's still well worth playing, offering around five hours of gameplay you aren't likely to forget anytime soon.
Where do I even start describing Zeno Clash? You're Ghat, a young warrior on the lam in a stone-age land where it looks like everything from houses to guns is hewn from rock and animal bone. Ghat is wanted for the crime of killing his clan's leader, a 10-foot-tall hermaphroditic creature with taloned feet named Father-Mother. In the game's world, humans have intermingled with animal people of all varieties. You fight enemies ranging from a giant elephant man to a bounty hunter who wears a crab mask and hurls exploding squirrel bombs at you from the back of a dinosaur.
Are you weirded out? All I can say is, you haven't seen anything yet. The game tells its story by alternating between present events and playable flashbacks, and it's so full of strange characters and incomprehensible events that the plot is a little tough to follow from time to time. The good news is, enjoying the game is more about seeing the wonderfully bizarre sights and sounds it shows you from one fantastic location to the next. The organic level design and range of crazy characters is a real treat from the start of the game all the way to the end.
If the story is damn near impossible to grasp, the combat at least is easy to pick up. You start learning the basic concepts of the intricate melee combat early on, including blocking, dodging, parrying, combo attacks, counterattacks, grapples, and throws. What really makes the combat work is a lock-on system that takes the guesswork out of lining up your attacks with your opponent, causing you to pivot around them and letting you focus on when to dodge and when to move in for a strong punch. That all might sound like a complicated set of fighting mechanics for a first-person game, but Zeno Clash takes its fighting seriously; you get a neat, familiar "versus" display before every encounter, showing you who you're fighting like in a fighting game. The combat is well thought-out, in other words.
The quality and brutal intensity of the melee combat is what makes Zeno Clash a success, though you do some shooting too, from time to time, using a set of bio-mechanical guns that look like they're straight out of the David Cronenberg film eXistenz. The gunplay isn't nearly as satisfying as the melee, but it gets the job done, and there's relatively little of it anyway. There's another cool couple of levels where you find a crystal-tipped staff that you can charge with a greenish energy that both acts as a torch, lighting your way, and lets you throw fireballs at a series of creepy, silent statue-people that rise from the ground and stalk you.
Zeno Clash will probably take you around five hours to finish, and it's such a unique five hours I feel the $20 price tag would be justified as-is. But it's nice that the game also includes a challenge mode that sends you brawling your way through floor after floor of a large tower. It's essentially a rapid-fire series of quick melee challenges with an online leaderboard included for best times. Since the melee combat is the best thing about the game, this mode is a good way to keep you playing after the story is over.
There aren't a lot of things you can knock Zeno Clash for. There are a few instances where it's hard to manage the number of opponents the game asks you to take on at one time, but you'll get better at that as you play more and improve your fighting skill. It's not the most technically impressive game, but that also means it will run fine on older hardware, and the great strength of the art design more than makes up for a dearth of shaders and polygons. And the voice acting only ranges from adequate to atrocious, though given the quality of the action, that shouldn't detract from your enjoyment much.
Anyway, I suspect the quality of the voice work owes to what must have been quite a small budget, judging by the number of names in the credits. Zeno Clash comes from ACE Team in Santiago, Chile, an indie studio founded by three brothers which has made an awfully impressive showing in Zeno Clash with its limited resources. If you're a fan of first-person action and truly offbeat, unpredictable games, head to your nearest Steam client and check this one out. I'd love to see what ACE Team can do with a bigger budget next time around.