Giant Bomb Review

49 Comments

Zeno Clash Review

4
  • PC

First-person action fans shouldn't miss Zeno Clash's unique mix of deep melee combat and wonderfully bizarre art design.

This is some of the best first-person melee combat in memory.
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.

Father-Mother is in the running for "Creepiest New Character 2009."
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.
49 Comments
Posted by Bigandtasty

If only Father-Mother sang What's Going On

Posted by MrMiyagi

I'm really happy I picked this up. It's an awesome game.

Posted by SenatorSpacer

I really want to play this, I just wish my computer wasn't a pile of ass :(


This would be cool to see on XBLA, but probably won't.
Posted by inkeiren

This is going to sound retarded, but this does not require for you to have the source engine, right? I'm pretty sure it does not, but I don't want to make a bad purchase.

Posted by JJOR64

Wow...  Maybe I should check this game out.

Posted by waza

for having pre-purchased the game at 10$, i can say that it is ABSOLUTELY worth 5 stars
but for 20$ .... the story telling isn't perfect, it can't exactly get the player really involved in the story

but for everything else this game is about, and for the free extra stuff that is coming shortly, anybody with a little sense for strange stuff and for a new experience should buy this game !!

Posted by Claude

I'm thinking about it.

Edited by Death_Burnout

it does look great...but i need to play it before i buy it, i feel.

Posted by HatKing

The art style kind of reminds me of Armed And Dangerous.

Posted by MattyFTM

I pre-purchased this when it was 50% off, but haven't gotten around to downloading and playing it yet. It definitely sounds like it's worth a look though. Thanks for the review brad, I'd have probably completely forgotten about it if you hadn't posted this. I'd have rediscovered it in a few months time when I'd be randomly browsing for something to play in my steam games list, but this reminder, and your praise for the game will get me playing it much sooner.

Moderator Online
Posted by Deusoma

It's really too bad this is a downloadable-only title, or I might have checked it out.

Posted by Peach

Amazing review. I cannot wait to play it. Need money ASAP.

Posted by ZmillA

just bought it. I was on the fence before and a good review from you guys is enough assurance.

Posted by Koukou

This game answers the ancient question "what happens if the unstoppable force meets the immovable object"

Apparently the unstoppable force gets tired and dies. ;<

*Yes you need to have played the game to even have a remote chance of understanding my drunken logic.*


Posted by Diamond

Personally I can't get over the art style.  Makes me just a bit nauseous.

Posted by VibratingDonkey

The first fight. Socking that chicken in the face as he makes chicken noises is so darned joyful. It's a freakin chicken, man, I'm punching him and he makes sounds like a man impersonating a chicken. Genius. Hope the bastard elephant makes appropriate noises when I punch him in the face too.

Praised be the digital distribution platform for making games like these feasible. Hope it'll appear on PSN or XBLA at some point.

Posted by theMcNasty

PC only?  :(

I don't have the income to keep my PC up-to-date as a gaming platform.

Posted by RenegadeSaint

I think this game got the coveted "Brad Bump" in sales thanks to this review; it's currently the 7th best seller on Steam.  Nice work, Shoemaker.

Posted by oraknabo

Can someone who has played both this and Condemned 2 compare their combat systems?

Posted by RHCPfan24

Looks like Dark Messiah: M&M. Interesting. I may want to check this one out.

Posted by MeatSim

How come I have never heard of this game ever and it looks somewhat cool were was the hype or the game coverage for this?

Posted by pause422

Zeno Clash's combat system is far deeper than Condemned 2's is. Of course in Condemned you had acess to a bunch of different melee weapons, while your main weapos in Zeno Clash is just your fists. Overall its a more in depth system though by far.

Posted by Luthorcrow

No it does not require you have to any other games.  Yes, it uses Source buts in the download when you buy it.

I am glade to see you guys shining the light on this gem.  Independent games like this are lot more exciting than the budget rehashes.

At 19.99 for 5 hours it actually works out to a better price point per game time than most new console games at full price (60.00 for 10 hours).

Posted by Shinogomaru

This game sounds crazy. I am very interested

Posted by DannyJ

i saw this on steam and wanted to try it but wasnt sure. Now maybe Ill take a look.

Posted by megalowho

would love to see a video review of this one, 

Posted by sasnipes

Im so glad this game is getting some well deserved attention!  It is finally a true unique game that is well worth at least one playthrough in my opinion.  If you haven't, you should definitely check it out and prepare to be wowed :D

Posted by Meltbrain

Sweet. I'm definitely going to look into this, it's too unique and crazy for me not to.

Posted by Kraznor

David Cronenberg reference!! Nice work Brad.

Posted by TwoOneFive

the art direction in this game alone makes me highly interested. 

Posted by ahoodedfigure

You had me at Father-Mother.

Posted by Meltbrain

Would you be able to do a video review or quick look, Brad? I would definitely like to see it in some form.

Posted by simian

Props on the eXistenz reference

Posted by The_A_Drain

eXistenz is a fucked up movie, makes my brain hurt.

Posted by TheFrostedGamer

I'm in. I'm a sucker for any FPS that does Melee well.

Edited by RagingLion

The hype and coverage has been particularly on more indie focussed sights such as the PC-centric rockpapershotgun.com which made me aware of this game quite a while ago.  It also has a really good discussion/review here, which goes into the game in a lot more detail if want a better idea of it.

Posted by wrecks

Great, original stuff for the PC. love steam.

Posted by Dirty_Harry

Quick look please!

Posted by Sunjammer

Hah, sick coincidence. I only just rewatched eXistenZ two days ago.
Been excited about this game for a while, i'd love a Quick look to really sell me though

Posted by Troika

Zeno Clash also have a mini comic.
http://forums.aceteam.cl/index.php?autocom=gallery&req=si&img=79

Posted by LordAndrew

I also bought this game awhile back when it was on sale for $10. I should try it out sometime.

Posted by jmrwacko

"I think this game got the coveted "Brad Bump" in sales thanks to this review; it's currently the 7th best seller on Steam.  Nice work, Shoemaker."

It's the 7th best seller on steam because it's 2/5 ACE Team is charging $20 for a game that's well worth $50. ;-)  I love give-aways, but now that the team has established their reputation with Zeno Clash, they shouldn't cheat themselves out of cash on their next big title.

Posted by Luthorcrow

Nah, I vote for the "Brad Bump" or BBE the "Brad Bump Effect"

Posted by TheIneffableBob

Zeno Clash is amazing. Buy it. It's 100% worth it.

Posted by Media_Master

video review be great to see this game in action!!

Posted by Sunjammer

Really wish there weren't guns in this game.. Having dudes take potshots at you just sucks the fun out of the brawling, which is, if you don't mind me saying so, FUCKING APOCALYPTIC. I'm really impressed with the game. Other FPS designers intending to include melee combat need to play it and learn. It makes Condemned and Riddick look amateurish (though Zeno probably learned a lot from them).

Posted by RenegadeSaint

"It's the 7th best seller on steam because it's 2/5 ACE Team is charging $20 for a game that's well worth $50. ;-) I love give-aways, but now that the team has established their reputation with Zeno Clash, they shouldn't cheat themselves out of cash on their next big title."

I stand by my  "Brad Bump" hypothesis.  I mean, this is THE Beard Shoemaker we're talking about here.

Posted by jmrwacko

I don't know, Sun. I think Riddick still has the best melee combat with the dual thumbstick controls. But Zeno Clash definitely blows DMoMM out of the water.

Posted by Braag

Good review, I bought the game couple days ago and I really liked it. it plays and looks different than any other game I've played this year so it was a refreshing experience :)