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Welcome to the Strange
How do I introduce Zeno Clash? Well it is a first-person game with a focus on melee combat. It is set in a fantastical world filled with bizarre creatures. It has an incredible punk inspired art style. The story is fascinating, the gameplay works really well and it is a tremendous amount of fun. Zeno Clash doesn’t care about the rules and that is part of what makes it so great.
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You play as Ghat, a rebel outcast from your community. You are on the run from your brothers and sisters with the beautiful and benevolent Deadra in tow. The game begins with a confusing mix of amazing visuals, flashbacks and some tutorial style fights which teach you the basics you will need if you want to survive. All you know is that you have killed Father-Mother and now you must flee.
The game is strictly linear in nature and it cleverly weaves a character driven story in with some brutal beat ‘em up action. Your main weapons in Zeno Clash are your fists and your feet. The melee combat system has been carefully designed and it allows for a range of combat moves, blocks and counter attacks which make fist fights a satisfyingly gritty experience. There is also a range of fragile-looking knocked together weapons but they have prohibitively long reload rates which really discourages their use.
There are a few short cut scenes but the bulk of the story is told by characters talking in game while you retain control of your character. This approach always works well as it keeps things immersive and engaging. As you work your way through the adventure you come up against a wide range of enemies. Fights are generally held in fairly tight, closed off environments. You know the violence is about to kick off when a title card intro pops up showing your opponents.
The controls are fairly easy to master and much of the challenge comes from beating multiple opponents at the same time. These bruisers do not line up and wait their turn, they come for you all at once and you have to employ some strategy to emerge victorious. The gameplay is oddly reminiscent of Double Dragon, you are always beating up multiple enemies: getting hit makes you drop weapons and the action is frenetic. It is also a lot of fun and it made me laugh out loud quite a few times as I kicked prone enemies through the air or unleashed a combination.
The main progression is relatively short but it is perfectly formed. The expectation some people have of getting days worth of gameplay is strange anyway. For this price you could see two movies and it easily outlasts that timescale so I reject longevity as a criticism. There is also a demonically tough tower challenge you can play afterwards in which you have to clear a circular arena of enemies before ascending to the next level. The ultimate aim is to reach the top as fast as possible.
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The art style in Zeno Clash is breathtaking. The characters, the weapons, the environments, the backdrops…..everything in the game oozes style. The only thing lacking an alien punk feel is the menus which are standard Source engine inserts. The character design is truly fantastic. There are mutated humans with animal elements to them, the costumes are a strange clash of prehistoric and futuristic and the incidental creatures like the mucalosaurus pictured are just awesome. There were moments in the game where the visual vistas had me gaping open mouthed. This is clearly a Source engine game and it’s not the graphical standard I’m impressed by so much as the sheer creativity on show.
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The ambient sound is excellent and the soundscapes do just enough to give the right impression in each environment. Zeno Clash relies upon the interesting plot, so the story requires a lot of voiceover acting which could have been a potential detraction. While Ghat himself has a somewhat boring voice and Deadra is also fairly forgettable, the rest of the characters are thankfully beautifully acted. Father-Mother has an especially fitting voice and the mysterious character you meet towards the end is also well acted which is great because there is a lot of narration from him.
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Ideally you want an Intel Core 2 Duo 2.4 GHz, at least 1GB of RAM, 3GB of hard drive space and an NVidia 7600 or an ATI X1600 or better graphics card. You will also need a DirectX 9c compatible sound card. The game suffers from the usual Source engine bugs so there is occasional sound stutter as levels open. I also encountered a nasty bug which disabled the AI because I had loaded a map update since saving the game but you can access chapters directly anyway so it didn’t cause a problem. The game doesn’t like to be ALT tabbed on my system but otherwise it ran perfectly.
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Every once in a while a new game comes along that grabs your attention because it is so different. The games industry is a slave to financially driven soulless idiots and to create something truly innovative and entirely new is difficult. Indie games like this are vital if the industry is to stay fresh and not descend into endless sequels and clones of the top five most successful games. Zeno Clash was developed by Chile based developer ACE Team and this is their first release. This game was clearly a labour of love and in the true indie spirit the company was formed by experienced developers keen to make something they would like to play themselves. They have announced that a sequel is on the way and I’m looking forward to it already.
Zeno Clash is without a doubt the most interesting game I have played in a long time. To say it is weird doesn’t do the captivating story line, the awe inspiring art style or the innovative melee combat justice. This is a game you have to experience for yourself and for under $20 you have no excuse not to buy it.