One of the more interesting aspects of Xbox Live Arcade is its ability to bring to the table different types of experiences beyond the big-name releases trumpeted in the seasonal “best of” trailers. Just one good example of the off-the-beaten-path of more mainstream titles on offer is Zeno Clash: Ultimate Edition. As the name would indicate, it’s the enhanced edition of a title that’s been available to PC gamers for more than a year now, containing both the original offering with a handful of tweaks and new modes. It’s a strange fever dream of thing, and guaranteed to be anything quite unlike anything else you’ll find on Xbox Live Arcade, or elsewhere, for that matter.
It’s important to note right at the outset that Zeno Clash is, first and foremost, a first-person perspective brawler. Gameplay consists almost exclusively of using trigger buttons to mash – well, it seems a stretch to call them people – “aggressors” in the face, over and over and over again. Combining the punch types with directional moves and other subtle controls allows for a fairly impressive degree of variety, bopping between carefully timed dodges and wild counterpunches, not to mention spinning kicks alongside the occasional less-than-sporting boot to your downed foe’s ribcage. Though couched in the shell of a story, each gameplay segment consists of littler more than highly linear progression through locked-in areas, which transform very rapidly into atmospheric arenas where you’re trapped until you paste all your foes.
And yes, there are occasional opportunities to mix up the formula a bit as weapons are interspersed throughout. Heavy clubs and hammers let you put the hurt on others much more effectively, albeit with a much slower swing, leaving you vulnerable that much longer. Ranged weapons are equally helpful, particularly against enemies who are similarly armed and need to be tagged from afar. These range from pistols to shotguns and crossbows, each with its own unique strengths and weaknesses.
But to describe Zeno Clash as weapon-tinged brawler is to miss the very core of the entire experience, which is very strongly defined by its truly bizarre plot. The game takes place in the world of Zenozoik, and you spend the game as Ghat, a man who starts the game being hunted for killing his tribal-style parental figure, an oversized chicken-like humanoid known as Father-Mother. This has upset countless individuals, who then spend the game hunting you down around and through the landscape, presenting you with no shortage of individuals to wallop mercilessly. Half the game is spent in flashbacks, exposing why and how you took on Father-Mother, while the other half shows you dealing with the aftermath – and by “dealing with the aftermath,” I mean “punching more people in the face.”
And again, even this fails to capture the essence of Zeno Clash, whose most strongly defining characteristic, aside from face-punching, is its incredibly trippy visuals. The character and art design of the game is by far its strongest suit, placing you square in this bizarre, Dr. Seussian quasi-tribal, quasi-nightmare of a world, where nearly every inhabitant is some sort of monstrous hybrid, often half-pig, half-bird, half-elephant, or half-something you could never quite describe. It’s a dirty, nasty place, and that’s meant in the best possible way, as the atmosphere is incredibly strong and conveys at almost all times just how brutish and unrelentingly weird the whole thing is. Even the weapons look as though they were cobbled together by crazy people, or cribbed in part from David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ. It’s all as though Tim Burton dropped a great deal of acid and took a stab at redesigning the areas of Zen from the original Half-Life, and that’s as strong a compliment as I can provide for this wildly inventive, creative, and unique visual experience.
This being the Ultimate Edition of the game, it comes complete with a few additional features, such as a character model viewer as well as the opportunity to work through a series of so-called “tower challenges” with a friend over co-op. Leaderboards have also been integrated into the game, a nice touch given the platform. They’re nice if unnecessary for a game that’s already decently lengthy, though the real breadth and longevity of the thing will derive entirely from your personal taste in the incessant pummelling, which, to be fair, is visceral and satisfying.
Zeno Clash: Ultimate Edition is a helluva weird thing, a brawler wearing a thick shell of insanity, couched thoroughly in a madman’s fever dream. The character and visual design is anything like you’ll ever come across, as the game offers up a world filled with bizarre and monstrous humanoids to create a rich, thick atmosphere that should be experienced if only for its sheer originality. Perhaps somewhat unfortunately, the actual kernel of the game itself is somewhat less enjoyable, with the endless hand-to-hand (and occasional gun-to-face) combat becoming rather repetitive over time. Of course, this isn’t to say the actual combat design is in any way deficient; in fact, it’s surprisingly complex and satisfying. All in all, it’s a strange game that most people will either love or hate, but something that most people should try at least once.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)