Zeno Clash: Ultimate Edition Review

By Patrick Klepek - Posted May 13, 2010

ACE Team has created a disturbing, engaging universe with Zeno Clash. They've sold me on learning more about the world and that first-person brawling has serious merit, but Zeno Clash is only a shaky foundation right now. If you're tired of the same ol' thing in games, though, if you're in pursuit of something new, Zeno Clash is it.

The Pros
  • Everything about the game looks and feels supremely weird…in a good way
  • Fighting takes on a whole new feeling from a first-person perspective
  • The story ends just as the gameplay begins to weaken
The Cons
  • Enemies have a tendency to overwhelm you, breaking the fighting mechanics
  • The world is stronger than the gameplay supporting it
  • Shooting weapons never feels quite right, rendering them mostly useless

There's strange…and then there's Zeno Clash, quite easily the most “out there” game I've played in recent memory, a brazen and bold effort to reinvent how you play in first-person. It's an experiment emboldened by a desire to reject traditional gameplay mechanics, but like DICE's attempt to make platforming work from the same perspective in Mirror's Edge, risk isn't easy.

Zeno Clash

You Have No Idea What You're In For

Zeno Clash is old news to the PC crowd. The Xbox Live Arcade version of Zeno Clash, dubbed Zeno Clash: Ultimate Edition, was brought to Microsoft's console through collaboration between indie developer ACE Team (a Chile-based outfit founded by three brothers) and Atlus, best known for its Persona RPG series. Given how Atlus embraces the quirkiness of Japanese game design other publishers have abandoned, however, the team up makes more sense.

It's supremely difficult to convey the weirdness of Zeno Clash, and the phantasmagoric adventure to find the bird-like creature Father-Mother you embark on, in words. It's strikingly like Clive Barker's surrealistic Abarat paintings come to life, where sex, violence and a drop of acid converge with The Twilight Zone. Zeno Clash is worth experiencing because it's unlike anything else I've ever seen in games. Few teams can create credible universes that feel worth exploring, but the moment Zeno Clash opens, you buy into its strangeness because it seems genuine. It's never truly explained, for example, why humanoids in Zeno Clash's world are fused with various animals -- but it never actually matters, either. It melds. You buy it. It just feels right.

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Smashing Heads Never Felt So Good

You'll do some shooting in Zeno Clash, but it's easy to ignore that it's not done very well, since Zeno Clash is primarily a first-person brawler, with firearms simply acting as a combat accessory. And while it's common for first-person games to incorporate a melee element, in Zeno Clash, melee is the focus. Players have access to varying degrees of strong and weak punches and kicks that can be altered into combos by interrupting them at different moments. It's tough to fully grasp at first, given that traditional interaction with punches and kicks are either from a third-person perspective or a fighting game set within a singular plane, whereas Zeno Clash asks you to master these already familiar mechanics from a whole new dimension.

Zeno Clash

It takes time partially because it doesn't totally work. There's variety to your fisticuff-based combat options in Zeno Clash, but the precision required to pull off the more elaborate maneuvers means that one-on-one fights are often the most exhilarating; players can focus on blocking, dodging, mixing up attacks. Unfortunately, seemingly just to encourage chaos, the game constantly surrounds you with enemies, forcing reliance on cheap tactics to keep them at bay. Tossing grenades is a crap shoot and thus incredibly unreliable to break up packs of attackers. By the end, I was really no more accurate with grenades than when I'd started and I'd all but ditched anything but basic punches. While weak, basic punches allowed me to cut-and-run without much issue. It's sad, too; the one-on-one, moment-to-moment Zeno Clash combat is otherwise extremely intense, satisfying and assumes a unique tone in first-person.

Zeno Clash

A Short Trip Down Zeno Clash Lane

Here's the thing about those complaints: you won't experience most of the negative feelings until you're the end of the game, where Zeno Clash's clearly underdeveloped mechanics begin to wear thin. But working in its favor, Zeno Clash isn't very long. The single-player campaign comes to a conclusion in just a few hours, moving briskly from environment to environment, with ACE Team quickly guiding players towards their destiny with the oddball Father-Mother. There are a few time and score based modes to play with after the story's rolled to credits, but both modes are fighting-centric and once the game was over, I'd tired of first-person brawling.

ACE Team has created a disturbing, engaging universe to play in here. They've sold me on learning more about the world and that first-person brawling has serious merit, but Zeno Clash is only a shaky foundation right now. With Zeno Clash 2 already in the works, I hope the gameplay has a little more oomph next time. If you’re tired of the same ol’ thing in games, though, if you’re in pursuit of something new, Zeno Clash is it.