There's a great moment in an early Simpsons episode, 'Lisa the Vegetarian', when after watching an Itchy & Scratchy cartoon Lisa notes the violence carries a serious message. Bart counters that it's just about laughing at people getting hit, and as he moves to leave the room Homer slams open the door in his face. The twin poles of chin-stroking and gratuity, brought together by slapstick - and a perfectly timed punchline. Violence as entertainment, in a nutshell.
Zeno Clash 2 is violence as interactive entertainment, a slightly different thing that's never been quite as neatly caught. Often it means shooting fruit-headed foreigners with assault rifles. But this singular world of anthropomorphic weirdos offers an earthier, much less dignified take - a place where everything is settled with fists. From start to finish this is a game about repeatedly punching humans and other animals in whatever they have for a face and, if nothing else, you have to admire that purity of vision.
It is this game's guiding light. Oddly shaped opponents line up and then get duffed up, with everything from piledriver finishers to flying fist-slams awaiting beyond the basic hooks. Left and right attacks are basic jabs, while holding either button charges haymakers and uppercuts; basic alternation, plus a few throws on stunned enemies, will finish off most everything.
The combos you can pull off are fixed, but the dynamic element of this system is in the timing; knowing when to sidestep and counter-punch, and when there's an opening big enough for mega damage. The feedback from the shots is quite something too, with a variety of effects absolutely capturing the queasy crack of meat-on-meat connections, and the deformed faces of opponents getting evermore misshapen. The stiff blow to the nose in a straight-up face-off, the clumsy stagger sideways after a shot to the ear - this may all feel familiar. If you've played Zeno Clash then, to a point, you've as good as played this. And Zeno Clash 2's changes... they're not all great.
The most obvious problem is that the size of fights has got bigger. In Zeno Clash 2 almost every battle is against multiple opponents, often overwhelmingly so, and coping with these crowds becomes the main game. The problems here are legion. The lock-on system comes with a nausea-inducing zoom that makes this the first game to give me motion sickness in the 19 years since Marathon - this only happened a couple of times, but anyone susceptible to such things should stay well away.
Other issues are more to do with a one-on-one melee combat system being adapted into a group setting. Counter-attacks, for example, are fairly critical. They depend on precise timing as blows are about to connect - which is really, really hard when you're being constantly blindsided. In fact what you end up doing is running around for a bit to find guns and other weapons to thin out the enemy ranks. What should be a mass brawl ends up looking like a surreal Benny Hill show. And as if there wasn't enough clutter, you can also bring companions into fights who'll act as distractions but little more, their AI unworthy of the term.
Ah well. At least Zeno Clash 2 looks the part, with a style combining anthropomorphic collage with the very finest drug-induced fantasies. Bits of one animal's face here, a rainbow bubble there, mad eyes all over the place and those silent great contraptions tying it all together. There are fantastic and fantastical sights to be had almost everywhere in this world, and a few views so breathtaking you simply stop for a while and make sure you've got a screenshot.
But Zeno Clash 2 has aspirations, and too much time has been spent cultivating the look of these environments rather than the feel. Abandoning the first game's tight corridors for a hub system of large areas could have worked; unfortunately everything else in the design stayed linear. There are some exceptionally poor symptoms of this, such as the backtracking missions or the invisible walls marked by ankle-high branches and rocks. Navigating tends to be either confusing, annoying or boring.
This is not an experience with smooth edges. There are minor bugs galore, and then more serious crashes - the latter I'm always willing to forgive once or twice, but in concert with a poor autosave system Zeno Clash 2 is really pushing it. On the principle that co-op makes everything better I tried that, only to discover my controls weren't working properly in one game, in another I couldn't see half of the enemies, and in most of the rest the connection mysteriously dropped.
Where Zeno Clash was an original this sequel seems too much under some bad influences; these find expression in the gameworld's new ambitions, and a much more po-faced plot. So let us remind ourselves of the defining characteristic of Zeno Clash 2: humanoids and talking animals getting punched in the face repeatedly by a pair of floating fists.
That's the big attraction, and it means there's an odd tension running right through the game. Zeno Clash 2 is a funny fighting game that wants to get all heavy and philosophical between rounds. There is a lot of chin-stroking and gratuity, in other words, but the great payoff tying everything together never quite arrives; Homer never slams the door open.
Zeno Clash 2 is not an unambitious game, and nor for that matter is it a bad one. The melee mechanic at its core is well-tuned, lots of fun once you've got the hang of it, and could carry a different game. But the new structure makes you wonder why it's there at all. Why the fetch quests and moth-collecting? Why the silly wrist-mounted puzzles?
For filler, that's why. In a game of such lean concept this is simply adding clunk, like bulking up a salad with sawdust. There are incredible things in the world of Zenozoik and yet it is bare; in attempting to go big, Zeno Clash 2 only ends up feeling empty.