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Zeno Clash [PC]

A blind assassin stands atop a gigantic creature whose ancestry appears to be some combination of dinosaur, dromedary and Jim Hensen’s creature shop. His purpose is the elimination of our protagonist – the mysterious Ghat, murderer of the hermaphrodite bird-figure Father-Mother. From his lofty perch, the assassin throws parachuting squirrels tied with explosive barrels to the desert floor below, hoping to follow their squeaks as they swarm around Ghat and ignite their crude bombs with rifle fire.

Just another day in the world of Zeno Clash.

Chilean developers ACE Team have taken a look at Valve’s source engine, decided it could be used for a world filled with things even more exotic than headcrabs and antlions, and crafted a fantasy setting of refreshing originality. There are segments reminiscent of 80s fantasy flicks like The Dark Crystal or Labyrinth, but these are just echoes; tugging at the memories of visual creativity and stylistic oddness presented by those films. Everything else, though it may hint at some familiar genesis, feels unique.

This is important in ways beyond the purely artistic. Because players are thrown into an unrecognisable world with strange social conventions and twisted morality, they are unable to trust their instincts for regular fantasy conventions. Without any obvious signifiers like a cackling dark knight or a kindly old wizard to latch on to, it’s much more difficult to get a grip on what motivates the characters in this curious land. The whole point of using a fantasy setting is to benefit from the ‘anything can happen, anything is possible’ aesthetic that it brings – something which is often forgotten in generic orcs-n-elves jaunts, but something that ACE Team have warmly embraced. The scene with the blind assassin COULD just have been a normal chap in a boring tower throwing regular bombs, but the fact that it ISN’T keeps things far more interesting.

‘Things’ in this instance mostly refers to punching bonkers adversaries in the face, introducing them to your knee and then flinging them into one another. Or just trying to shoot them with handguns made out of fish, as if that were the most everyday solution in the world. Aside from the shock of the surroundings, the first person shooter segments work roughly as you’d expect – it’s the first person beat em up parts (which make up the majority of the game) that are rather different from the standard formula. In fact they share quite a bit in common with classic scrolling beat-em-ups, like Target Renegade or Streets of Rage. Except, you know, in first person.
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For the most part, the tricky business of creating satisfying fisticuffs has been handled very well. Ghat can launch rapid punches, slog at people with haymakers and, with a bit of practise, pull off blocks, retaliatory kicks and running elbow-first towards protruding jaws and noses. Connecting blows feel a great deal more solid and weighty than they did in, say, Dark Messiah, although like that title Zeno Clash also has slightly wonky depth perception at times. Hits can sometimes be landed on people from slightly further away than it appears they should, taking a few moments to get used to. When enemy attacks connect, it can send Ghat reeling away or tumbling to the floor in a way that feels suitably brutal, yet also avoids inducing terrifying levels of motion sickness.

All of which encourages a deft awareness of where other opponents are lurking, often forcing the player to keep track of multiple foes and not becoming too fixated on a single target. Getting ‘caught’ on a piece of background scenery when trying to fend off three angry pugilists can lead quickly to panic and a sound pummelling. It seems a touch unfair, but it’s realistic to expect players to retain some kind of mental map of their surroundings, so as not to be backed up into a corner. Things have also been made more reasonable by the release of a recent patch, allowing players to now manually ‘lock’ on or off attackers – something which means there should usually be an escape route open from a tight spot. A minor issue remains with the slight finickiness of grabbing vital health fruits or weapons in the midst of hectic fights, however. Resulting in some slight annoyance at being unable to always sweep a hammer fluidly from the floor and turn it immediately on some of the larger creatures, who require more than a knuckle buffet to subdue them.

The menagerie facing Ghat on his enigmatic journey are as oddball as you’d expect, including a creepy tribal musician, an elephant-faced fatty and a chap who charmingly wants to make himself invisible by removing the eyes of everybody he meets. You’ll also meet wildlife of both the freakish and more traditional varieties, including some rather cute pigs that you can immediately wade into and starting kicking up in the air if you’re some kind of pig-hating nutter.

Locations and settings remain lush and bewildering throughout, often passing by without much of an explanation. This works relatively well with the plot, which relies upon the player being kept in the dark about Ghat’s past and the world he inhabits, but can also feel a bit frustrating when all you want to do is run off and explore the wonderful outdoors. At almost every turn the game restricts you from doing this, penning the player within designated fighting arenas. Where the player is allowed to explore a little more, such as the first desert sequence, it can feel like a gigantic tease – hinting at a more open title, then snatching it away again. This is partially due to the game originally being planned as a vast, open-world experience, then later paired (sensibly) down to a self-contained and more manageable project. There are clues everywhere as to how much thought has been put into the world’s background by the developers – right down to a phonetic alphabet used in a throne room encountered in the middle of the game.

But leaving the player wanting more is not a crime unless the title has been dramatically overpriced, and Zeno Clash is priced pretty appropriately for what is, roughly, a four hour experience. There are some stand-alone tower challenge levels to provide a bit more longevity and competition with friends to beat best times and soforth, but the core gameplay is relatively short. If anything though, this prevents the excellent melee fighting from outstaying its welcome. As work on a sequel (which promises to be a more expansive project) has already been announced, Zeno Clash serves as a perfect introduction to the bizarre land of Zenozoik and offers a terrific few hours of hand to hand combat to boot. As it were.


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