When I played the first Zeno Clash, the world of Zenozoik felt like something out of a long lost 1980s fantasy film; unique, exciting and strange. Those feelings are there in the sequel too, particularly in the latter half of the game where some outstanding new areas of the world are opened up; but the areas revisited by this follow-up now feel more comfortable than outlandish. That’s not a negative sensation, but it is a less powerful one.
In Zeno Clash II you’re once again cast as Ghat, the renegade outcast and one-man punching machine. By the end of the first game (minor spoilers approaching!) Ghat had brought back a law-obsessed Golem from the North and beaten up FatherMother, his adoptive hermaphrodite bird-creature parent. FatherMother is now in jail and his children have been scattered, having been told by Golem where their real parents are. Ghat’s sister, Rimat, isn’t too happy about any of this.
That may explain her new (but not improved) voice, but I suspect that’s more down to a few duff line reads and limited time in the recording studio. I may also be one of the few people who thought Rimat and Daedra’s (who also has a replacement here) performances in the first game were fine.
As a sequel, the game follows the “more, larger, longer” tradition. Zenozoik is not exactly ‘open world,’ but rather than a linear path it’s now a series of connected hubs with a fast-travel system. Each bordered hub is a fair bit larger than the set-piece levels in the first game (maybe four or five times in some cases,) and while the game still opens up new areas in a pretty linear sequence, Ghat is free to backtrack at any time.
Just as it was before, our hero’s solution to pretty much any problem is “oh yeah? wanna fight about it?” followed by some non-Queensberry fisticuffs. That means more first-person brawling, and plenty of it.
The expanded areas tends to mean fights with larger groups, so ACE Team has introduced a few additional moves to help with crowd control and some other ‘specials’ linked to a replenishable adrenaline bar. If you got a bit sick of people sneaking up behind you for a cheeky punch in the back of the skull in the first game, the backwards kick (always heralded by an on-screen prompt, so you don’t just have to guess) is a masterful inclusion. Double-handed hammer punches and piledrivers are also fairly easily accessed through either the mouse and keyboard or 360 controller. Enemies now have area damage as well, so powerful blows to the head cause more pain.
Combos, however, can be a bit tricky. There’s a separate tutorial section which can be accessed at any time (useful, if you’ve forgotten a couple of moves,) and even with the pressure of real combat removed it proves awkward to pull off chained moves like a swift double punch, uppercut and kick. Whether this is due to the switch from Source to Unreal Engine 3 I’m not sure, but there’s now a certain amount of input lag on moves and it can really throw off your timing. Having to preempt your next action while the first is still finishing makes these combos unpredictable and imprecise to pull off. I thought this could be a framerate issue of some kind, but it remained even on lower graphical settings.
Luckily, you can get through the game without having being able to nail every single combo.
Worried that false memories of the original Zeno Clash were colouring my reactions to the new ‘feel’ of the fights, I loaded it back up and played through the first few sections. Unfortunately, it confirmed my thoughts. Brawls in the original game feel quicker, carry more weight and seem (forgive me) punchier than in the sequel. Opponents will more frequently bark dialogue at you, and the AI even seems more dedicated to picking up and using stray weaponry. It’s more hectic, and the fighting in Zeno Clash II feels, in comparison, a little floatier.
That said, the sequel makes ‘big guys’ far less frustrating to fight and has proper, satisfying boss battles that require actual changes in strategy (rather than the original’s method of just chucking two massive bruisers at you and calling it a day.) In part, this is down to the introduction of some great new weapons that Ghat can use. A couple of these are revealed as the story progresses so I won’t go out of my way to spoil them, but like the whip-chain (which you come across pretty early,) they’re tailored to tackling groups of four or five enemies.
The introduction of AI allies that can be summoned for key encounters also makes group fights more manageable (especially post-patch where they actually put up a fight for longer than 20 seconds.) Or, should you favour some human support, you can opt for some drop-in/drop-out online co-op, as demonstrated by myself and Tim McDonald in the IncGamers Plays video below.
If all else fails, Ghat can usually survive on guerilla punching tactics (nip in, slap a lone enemy about a bit and leg it) to whittle down a troublesome group. It’s less interesting, but it can work. Some areas also provide handy bits of scenery (cliffs, mostly) for simple kills.
Figuring some of this stuff out might be kind of awkward at first, because Zeno Clash II is not a game that believes in holding player’s hands or spelling stuff out. At all. Early on, you’ll come across a totem that (when touched) bestows a skill point that can be allocated to health, strength, stamina or leadership through bringing up your in-game map. None of this really explained, it’s left up to your innate awareness of light RPG conventions to figure out.
Personally, I’m a fan of this approach. The game has a few subtle clues to show you what’s going on, like tethered birds at the entrances and exits of hubs, or beams of light shooting into the sky for fast travel points. Some other aspects are a bit obtuse, but that’s in-keeping with the decidedly strange world that ACE Team has created.
Less welcome were the occasional glitches that I ran into, even post-patch. One seemed intent on dropping the framerate during scenes that seemed no more or less intensive than previous ones. Another would freeze everything but basic movement (locking me out of any attacks) until Ghat took some more damage, which was especially unhelpful when it happened during the close of a key sequence some distance from a saving checkpoint.
At this juncture, it’s worth hammering home just how magnificent the ACE Team artists are. The design of everything that’s been added to the Zeno Clash world is just as bizarre as you’d hope; and some of the more open areas (like the Eastern mountain lands and the larger Rath-bird fields) make full use of the increased space. New factions and creatures, even random NPCs like a needy, moth-obsessed painter, are unlike almost anything else in gaming. At a few elevated points in the game, it’s even possible to see most of the known Zenozoik world. These are spectacular sights, with a minimal reuse of assets, complemented by another strong soundtrack.
It’s a title that’s worth playing just to experience its world alone.
The switch to Unreal Engine 3 has allowed the team to implement more realistic, dynamic lighting and a full day-night cycle too. It’s great to watch the light fade and return as you make your way through Zenozoik, but the improved technical prowess has also brought a slight change in atmosphere. Revisiting the original game has convinced me that the colours were actually more vivid in Source than Unreal, even though the static lighting is objectively ‘worse.’ That’s all down to personal taste of course, but compare these two images of (roughly) the same in-game area. Even though the shot from Zeno Clash II is taken from a daylight period with a high sun, to me it appears darker and a little more washed-out than the first game.
ACE Team deserves a lot of credit for tackling a sequel of this scope and keeping it at a budget price. The added scale of Zeno Clash II has introduced some new problems and perhaps weakened the tightness of the first game’s plot, but a studio of this size (the credits list just 15 people) can be forgiven a couple of stumbles. They’ve also reacted very quickly to fan requests for patched features, such as a wider Field of View (FOV) for those who were getting nauseous at the narrow, fixed viewpoint the game was released with, as well as the already mentioned update to AI allies.
The game’s main brawling mechanic has been thoughtfully expanded in terms of move-set and weapon selection, but feels less satisfying to employ than it was in the original. Slight input lag and the lighter crunch to your punches make fight encounters less tactile; and since punching freaky creatures in the face is what you’ll be up to for the majority of the title’s 8 hour length that causes a bit of a problem. ACE Team’s creativity and imagination are still reflected in the marvellous world design and narrative, but the less responsive brawling is the main reason that Zeno Clash II is a game I merely like, when it’s one I dearly wanted to love.