Well after the lovable odd games by Amanita Design, I was ready for something a bit more gritty, a bit less intricate in thought, a bit of mindless violence with a classic formula. And by the beard of Zeus did I get one of the strangest games I’ve ever played where the violence was anything but mindless, the formula anything but classic and the game anything but thoughtless. But it was still gritty at least.
At first I didn’t like Zeno Clash… at all. The entire game was developed on the Source Engine by a Chilean Developer called ACE Team and while I have nothing against the Source Engine, Half-Life, Counter-Strike and all that, Portal is the only game I’ve played based in the engine which transcends beyond a simple first-person shooter with linear story line (mind you, the story and the plot of these games are generally amazing). Zeno Clash, for a game using the Source Engine, seemed to be very limited in graphics, the mechanics, models and while taking the linear, stage-by-stage approach is used, at first I had no idea what was going on.
My second issue was the genre mix. The best way to describe this game is a First-Person Melee (FPM as I will call it from now on) with FPS and Fighting-genre elements. Basically, as you progress though the game you’re taught the different elements of melee fighting such as heavy and light attacks; blocking and dodging; grabbing and throwing; and eventually countering and counter blocking. In addition, you can also use a single weapon at a time and grenades (which happen to be exploding skulls). And as you can see from the screenshot to the left, fights are set up in arena-style battles which also act as checkpoints.
I also had other problems with the game, but I’ll talk about them later as these were my initial impressions of the game. I believe that first impressions are important and my first impressions of this game were… confusing.
You are thrown into the world of Zenozoik in the town of Halstedom where the main character, Ghat, has just woken up from unconsciousness after blowing the face off and killing Father-Mother, the hermaphroditic sire of an influential Family, and possible the sire of all inhabitants of Halstedom. You are member of the Family, one of Father-Mother’s children and are now fleeing with your girlfriend, Deadra, from bounty-hunters, assassins and your brothers and sisters, all seeking retribution.
The whole story takes on a Prince of Persia: Sands of Time approach as Ghat retells the events that led up to him discovering a secret about the Father-Mother which resulted in Ghat attacking him/her. The game jumps between flashbacks and current travels which, while clearly sign-posted, tend to become blurred and almost irrelevant.
Zenozoik, the world this story is based in, seems to be an amalgamation of wasteland raider, prehistoric tribal and cosmological myth (like the world of the Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime). In your journeys you go to the end of the world, travel on a river through the desert and awaken an all-powerful benevolent being called Golem, who seems to know everything that is going on, to aid you in your journey.
So while my opinions of the game started off low, they drastically improved as the game went on. The combat mechanics are intricate, requiring you to use certain combinations of counters, blocks, weapons and heavy attacks to be able to defeat your enemies. While this is good, and maybe I’ve been spoilt by games like Arkham Asylum and Sleeping Dogs, but FPM is not a great style for a game. Many times I was dodging around the blows of my locked on enemy only to have some bastard hit me from behind, completely unaware of his existence. Or worse, get shot at from a distance. There was much cursing to be had. But then again, this created a very intense style of game-play as I was constantly on edge and super-aware of everything around me. In the end, it was fun.
This was further enhanced by the story. Often creation myths are simplistic in terms of characters and plot and using Source’s disposition towards linearity resulted in what turned out to be a genuinely enthralling tale. Also the secret was well worth the short game and ended up explaining some very key concepts while setting it up for a sequel. Also, considering it was made by half a dozen guys in 2009, not bad.
And unfortunately there were a few bugs which slightly ruined the game for me, such as graphical issues with draw-distances and blurring above certain view height. There was also one level where my enemies started fighting with each other and while I wasn’t complaining, I wasn’t sure if it was supposed to happen like that. Also, as I mentioned, some of the battles could be quite difficult, but this seemed directly proportional to the amount of enemies. This meant that the final boss fight was a little easy since it was one-one.