Zeno Clash II Review
Games don't get much weirder than the Zeno Clash series. The first game, released in 2009 by Chilean developer ACE Team, brought us solid first-person melee combat along with some of the weirdest art and character design, architecture, and overall atmosphere ever seen in a first-person game. The plot was tough follow, but usually was brought together with a good fistfight or one of those strange gunfights using weapons made from bones and other prehistoric materials. Now, four years after the release of the first game, Zeno Clash 2 is here, and while ACE Team made something bigger and more ambitious - all with a reasonable $20 price tag - their efforts only highlight the flaws in their designs and really stress the notion that sometimes, less could've been more.
The player reprises the role of vaguely male-human character Ghat on a very strange world full of weird creatures. This time, the villain from the first game, FatherMother, is who you're trying to help. The new bad guy, Golem, is interesting since he often speaks more sense than Ghat or the other characters on his side, although it's tough to take this game seriously with such oddball writing and awful voice acting, which admittedly does carry over from the first game - but the novelty's kind of worn off now. It's clear that ACE Team had the option to make changes to things after the moderately successful first game, but they seem to have purposefully refused. I like it when a developer sticks to their guns, but being intentionally bad for more than one game in a series is a bit of a tightrope walk - and as much as I want them to succeed, ACE Team doesn't make it across the gap before falling.
The action in Zeno Clash II centers around melee combat and the careful dance of managing stamina while blocking or dodging attacks, all while coming in with combos using a mix of fast and strong attacks. The game's FOV is very narrow, giving the player a limited viewpoint into the world. You'll often have your followers with in the fight with up to a dozen enemies at once, although they don't fight nearly as effectively as you do. RPG-like skill advancement will give you the option to directly improve your character or to increase your Leadership skill that allows you to recruit stronger followers, but the iffy AI generally short-circuits most of that added effectiveness. Just like with the first game, guns are available here in Zeno Clash II; the usual way this goes is that you'll find one out in the world or knock one out of the hands of an enemy wielding, then you have the option of picking it up and using it until it's out of ammo. You can then swing the gun in melee at enemies a few times before it breaks completely, and then you're back to your bare hands. Other secondary weapons will stick with you, but the game doesn't veer from the melee focus for too long.
One thing that's consistently positive for me is that the game's signature melee combat is pretty much always solid and feels right - at least, when you're not exploring or stuck in another ridiculous dialogue-heavy cutscene. You'll get into a rhythm of attack and defense that is addictive and fun, but unfortunately the game's constantly stopping you to throw its inane and poorly-delivered story at you or send you off to some objective that you'll spend way too long trying to find. The issue is that the open-world nature of the game that ACE Team created also turns out to be severely limited, so expect a disappointing lack of interactivity, tons of invisible walls all over every level, and what's worst is that the map system is so vague, it proves to be pretty much unusable. It also doesn't help that quest markers placed on your HUD aren't clear as far as which objective (of the several that can be active at once) you're actually heading towards. Plus, I swear they move around as if to screw with me.
Visually, everything unique about Zeno Clash II resides entirely in its art and design. The game won't wow you with special effects or impeccable texture quality; instead, you'll get the weirdest characters, creatures, and architecture. If you're looking for unique features, there are a few interesting things: you can now lock on to an enemy, you'll deliver more damage with punches to the head, and the biggest thing is the drop in/drop out cooperative online play for two people. Still, I'm not sure that multiplayer was really what people were clamoring for in a sequel, and the other features aren't enough to drastically improve the game, which already feels good in combat - but then conspires to pull you out of it so often.
Zeno Clash II was in development for years, but in a lot of ways, it just doesn't really feel like that time was well-spent. The creators put lots of effort into making the game bigger, but it only winds up adding baggage to a game that's already pushing the limits of what we'd call "charming". I don't mind that Zeno Clash II is a fundamentally weird game with outlandish designs, but simple, tight, and impactful gameplay needs to back up such an insane visual designs - and too much of what was truly important got lost when ACE Team decided to add so many things that wind up getting in the way of that core fun. The brawling is fun, the AI is bad, the voice acting's worse, and the graphics depict some of the weirdest things you'll see in a first person video game. Zeno Clash II isn't amazing, but for twenty bucks, it gets the job done - if only barely.
Disclaimer: This review is based on near-final code provided by the developer as well as the final released version.