(PC Review) Zeno Clash II

Developer: Ace Team
Publisher: Atlus
Genre: Action / First-Person Brawler
Players: 1-2
Reviewer: Philip Smith

Overall: 6.5 = Fair

Minimum Requirements:
Intel Core 2 Duo 2.4 GHz or AMD Athlon X2 4800+, 2 GB RAM, Nvidia GeForce 8800 GT 512MB/ATI 3850HD 512 MB, 4 GB Hard Drive space

Chilean developer Ace Team has returned to the surreal world of Zenozoik for a follow-up to their bizarre 2010 first-person action title Zeno Clash. Set after the events of the original, players once again control the wandering brawler Ghat. After returning home with Golem, a powerful and mysterious stranger he encountered during his journey, Ghat finds himself at odds with his clan and his former travel mate. Under the influence of Golem, the clan has imprisoned their and Ghat’s former caretaker, FatherMother, after learning that he founded the clan from children he kidnapped and claimed to have birthed. Seeking to topple Golem and free FatherMother, Ghat teams up with his sister and former enemy Rimat in a bizarre new adventure.

Depoter Nick told me how strange Zeno Clash was when he reviewed the original for Xbox 360, but words really can’t convey just how strange it is to journey around Zenozoik. Nothing looks quite right, yet everything looks like it should. Buildings have floors that tilt at 45-degree angles; walls aren’t completely attached to ceilings or floors; and the inhabitants resemble distorted remnants of discarded creatures from The Island of Doctor Moreau. Playing the game is like being in a fever dream that was brought to life and then smeared with a mixture of watercolors and lit with fluorescents. It’s just the right kind of weird.

Fortunately, the story is easier to understand this time around—but just barely. The nearly impenetrable dialog from the original has been sufficiently improved to the point where it’s easy to follow along from plot point to plot point. That doesn’t mean it will make much sense in general, but at least now the characters and their motivations aren’t hidden behind indecipherable ramblings. Still, those with experience with the original will definitely have a leg up over those just joining Ghat. There is a tutorial that teaches the mechanical additions, but it’s doubly important as it also serves as a means to get players up to speed about what happened during and after Zeno Clash. Throughout the various combat segments, misty images whirl in the background as whispered memories of past adventures tell a disjointed tale about FatherMother, Golem, and Ghat’s foiled plan for revenge. As unique a take on a tutorial as this is, it isn’t an especially effective delivery system, as the player’s attention is naturally focused more on learning the moves than trying to make heads or tails of the weird creatures and seemingly rambling dialog in the distracting recap. The tutorial leaves much to be desired on the mechanic side as well because, aside from introducing some combos and defensive moves, it doesn’t touch on a lot of things that newcomers will find perplexing.

Most of the game’s important information is tucked away in “How to Play” within the Help & Options menu. I actually didn’t see this for quite some time, figuring the in-game pop-up text would cover what the tutorial did not. It took those brief notes, some of the loading screen hint text, and exploring the button functions on the Xbox 360 controller for me to fully comprehend the game’s mechanics. It’s surprising just how much information isn’t front and center at the beginning of the game, especially with something as unorthodox as the skill point system. Skill points aren’t acquired through defeating enemies or completing one of the new side quests, as they normally are in games, but by activating Skill Totems. The categories to where the points are allocated are similarly explained in passing. Ghat can be improved in four different areas: Health, Leadership, Stamina, and Strength. Leadership is briefly mentioned, but again, details are light, such as the actual abilities of the AI-controlled partners, how long it will take them to heal after a battle, or how to block online co-op players from joining in at any time as Rimat. A special pre-battle selection screen will appear before those battles the game deems important enough for them to be called into action, but I found the menu setup to be poorly optimized for controllers; menu options were indicated and easily selectable with the mouse but those same options wouldn’t highlight properly when selected using a controller. All of this leads to an early game that is frequently and needlessly confusing. A manual, or even just a better-designed menu system, would have helped immensely.

Zeno Clash II would have especially benefited from being friendlier to new players because the series offers one of the more unique action experiences for the PC. Console players have had access to similar titles for several years, most notably Namco Bandai’s excellent Breakdown and Sega’s Maken X, but this is virgin territory for many PC gamers. While first-person shooters have dominated the platform for years, Zeno Clash II is something different. There are guns that can be used as secondary weapons, along with blunt objects and exploding skulls, but they have limited ammo and are rarely available; this is a brawler, first and foremost. One of the most notable aspects is that series’ utilization of a viewing system that emulates neck movement, which results in exaggerated and drastic shifts in perspective. Being hit with a sufficiently hard blow will send Ghat tumbling to the ground, with the camera quickly tilting at weird angles that flash shots of his arms, stomach, and legs as he rolls about and his head gets knocked around. As immersive as the system is, it can also be very disorienting. In general, though, it’s a novel take on an established design that I think would be of interest to players looking for something out of the ordinary.

For all the colorful locales, and even more colorful characters, the game’s most dominant feature is the combat system. A small move list allows for a surprising amount of combos while also being very manageable. A control scheme smartly utilizes the mouse button/controller shoulder button to move that side of Ghat, which creates a unique rhythm that keeps combat fresh and exciting, particularly when combined with the ability to block, dodge, kick, and throw—when everything is functioning properly, that is. Tapping a button results in faster, lighter punches, while holding it down unleashes punches that are slower but hit harder. Some damage is received when blocking, but moving at the appropriate time while blocking will cause Ghat to dodge the attack completely, which is more tiring but also leaves the enemy open for a hard-hitting counterattack. Even if the enemy isn’t attacking, dodging can still be used in conjunction with punch to throw a hook, which, along with charged punches and kicks, will send enemies tripping back into their friends. A stamina bar limits the fancy footwork, and another meter, replenished through power-up items and landing combos, limits the number of special moves that can be pulled off within a given time period. One of these special moves is a double-fisted charged punch that sends enemies into the air and, with luck, to an instant death off a ledge or smack into their cohorts for splash damage. The system’s new hit-spot recognition allows for blows to land on the stomach or on the head, and since headshots take off more life, enemies are prone to guard their face, which opens them up for a few gut shots and a solid finisher. Moves can be stringed together on the fly, but there are also set combos that require coming to grips with a tricky timing system that uses queued inputs. Unlike the older Mortal Kombat titles, in which moves can be queued right as the first hit of a combo landed, Zeno Clash II requires that the next be inputted shortly before impact, which is more dangerous because the blow might not actually land. Grabs can also be a satisfying way to down an opponent, by smacking them several times, kneeing them in the face, or crushing them with a piledriver. A reverse kick has been added as well, which can be engaged whenever an enemy approaches from the rear. However, it can only be used whenever an on-screen prompt appears, and it’s frequently absent during the many times when enemies encircle and attack from behind. Adding a touch of panache to all of this is the fact that enemies fly and flail around, which can result in bystanders getting hit and joining in the fight. The very beginning of the game opens with an extended barroom brawl, with enemies getting knocked into tables and random patrons joining the rumble—it was like a bizzaro version of Roadhouse.

Fights can break out anywhere. The world is comprised of several populated navigable areas connected by pathways. Engaging a pathway results in the next area loading automatically, but each area can be explored in a variety of degrees. Some areas are fairly open while others are more confined, though each is filled with invisible walls that restrict movement. Nearly all are lovely to behold, as imaginative as they are curbing, with strange creatures roaming the hills and a day-and-night cycle providing a sense of continuity and of a larger world beyond the horizon. As Ghat wanders about in search of his fellow clan members, he will be set upon by animals, bandits, and animal bandits. Most creatures are easily dealt with, though there are some poison-spitting flyers that can be particularly nasty. The bandits, on the other hand, can be quite dangerous. A pre-battle screen allows Ghat to call upon his allies to join him for some of these fights, and from there, the groups engage in a massive brawl that is equal parts exciting and disconcerting.

For all of the fist-pumping done (and bird-faces smashed), there were many times when I had to set the game aside in frustration. Despite the series’ interesting progression, there is a distinct lack of polish. In addition to the issue of menus not indicating controller-inputted selections, I also encountered enemies floating over objects, AI allies showing little regard for tactics or self-preservation, and enemies that couldn’t be targeted. The problems range from minor, such as ally selections during the pre-battle screens causing Ghat to swing afterwards, to major, namely reoccurring issues with hit detection. There were numerous instances when I had an enemy dead to rights—the reticule was on them, I was inches away, and they were targeted—and Ghat would completely whiff the punch. His fist would somehow miss the solid object in front of him and hit nothing. There is a general chunkiness to the pathfinding as well, with enemies walking into each other and random denizens wandering into walls and milling around in corners. Ghat’s allies will have similar problems, engaging enemies one minute and bumping into them the next. This can be especially troublesome when they walk into his attack range because it is possible to hit friendlies, and while allies generally try to leave some room between themselves and the player, they can also find themselves walking into the knuckle end of a fist. Things were better on the technical end, though there were occasional framerate dips, which would happen even when I was just wandering around an open area.

Performance issues also cropped up during online play. The multiplayer component is more ambitious this time around, with players capable of dropping in and out of another player’s game whenever they wish. A handful of options allow players to tweak what kind of player, if any, can enter. For those who join a game in progress that is beyond the area they are in, the game will consider those uncompleted chapters as finished so that the game can continue. Both players will have to leave areas together, split items, and survive bouts on their shared journey. Aside from some jerky animations, I was dropped out of the game a few times with an incorrect error indicating that I no longer had network access. I’m not itching to replay the entire game, but those moments were a disappointment because I did enjoy running through areas with strangers, helping them to complete puzzles they hadn’t ran across and even seeing new areas that I had missed the first time around. Diehard co-op fans might want to give the game some time until the connection and animation issues get ironed out; everyone else should get their fill after a few sessions, disconnects and all.

Zeno Clash II expands upon the original in several meaningful ways, but it’s a diamond in the rough at this point. The combat system has evolved to include more supplemental moves that nicely augment the core set of punches and combos, but the lumbering pathfinding and spotty hit detection were persistent problems that need to be addressed before it gets a full recommendation. Fortunately, members of Ace Team are active on Steam’s forums and are actively seeking information from players on how to improve the game. Hopefully time will see Zeno Clash II become the surreal badass brawler it’s so close to being.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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