Between Lord of the Rings and Oblivion, the word "fantasy" has become synonymous with the repeatedly tried, tested, franchised, cut and pasted story of burly dwarves and their reluctant, whimsy-faced Elven allies; of the brave new race of men, forging their place in history in the fire of trade and cities; of orcs noshing on livestock while elementals and giant bastard spiders cavort in unfeasibly named hills; of fortresses and legends and magic jewellery. Of narrow bounds, basically, much as we often love the results.
Zeno Clash looks beyond the osmotic homogenisation of rank-and-file fantasy, though, and it's to its credit. Developed by Chilean outfit ACE, it's a unique, inexplicable fantasyland of genuinely new ideas, wild new races and a wilful lack of logic and reason. It's worth watching the original trailer to get a sense of its otherworldliness - the diversity of the almost-human to overtly bestial creatures - and the second trailer, which will give you an idea of the mechanics of combat and showcase some of the sumptuous environments. The cast are the real stars, though. In particular, the haunting, stalking ornithology of FatherMother rides the knife-edge between fascination and disgust, providing the visual hook in an otherwise chaotic melange of beasts, people and monsters.
There's no question of its visual appeal then, but what of the substance beneath the canvas? Zeno Clash is a first-person-brawler, so despite the occasional appearance of guns and melee weaponry, players are mostly dishing out punishment with bare fists. It's not easy to pull off this sort of combat, but a playable press demo suggests ACE is doing well here as well. Blows are solid, with a strong sense of connection as foes are tossed around by the relatively limited move-set. The juicy slap of meat on meat is accompanied by flinch-inducing gasps and groans, made all the more guilty by the fact that your first handful of opponents are close relatives, despite their massive physiological disparity.
The game opens with a brief training session in which you learn your fighting repertoire, but in truth there's not a lot to learn. Left-clicking lands a punch or a kick, depending on camera elevation, and holding down the button unleashes a three-blow combo, while holding right-click pulls out a haymaker, usually lifting opponents off their feet and depositing them some distance away. Blocking depletes a fatigue gauge, making the block-and-move dodges preferable. There's also a rudimentary hold system, where player-character Ghat takes a kneeling enemy by the ears and administers a classic knee to the nose. Melee weapons are limited to quick or heavy blows, and the game's guns are on a simple aim/shoot/melee system.
Initial brawls are enjoyable, thumpingly vicious affairs with a hint of tactical depth. Player character Ghat is often forced to face off against multiple opponents, who are usually equipped with a mixture of ranged and close-quarters weaponry, and this means keeping on the move, using cover and focusing quick flurries of blows on an opponent before backing out of danger when crowded. There's a palpable sense of confusion when you take a heavy blow, often resulting in a quick dirt sandwich whilst Ghat struggles to his feet. Compared to Oblivion and Fallout, it's much more immediate, more involved and satisfactory. Despite struggling against four-breasted lizards, hulking elephant-men and half-bird siblings, Zeno Clash goes some way to convincing you that you're inhabiting Ghat's wiry frame.
In contrast, the ranged weapons are a little weak. Whilst undeniably effective, there's none of the impact and schadenfreude of the rugged face-bashing, and apart from one fight where their use was obligatory, I abandoned them in favour of Ghat's trusty fists, whose hefty thwacks are more immersive. Only in one encounter did Ghat's blows lose their force or connection, although you sometimes feel that enemies are able to strike you from too great a distance. Physics are solid though (a couple of spazzy crates excepted), and there are no jaggies, floating objects or clipping issues.
Ghat's story is only touched upon over the course of the demo, although promises some clever telling. In terms of the overall aesthetic there are touches of Terry Gilliam, shades of Pathologic, twists of Dark Crystal, smatterings of Gaudi, Hieronymous Bosch and Citizen Kabuto. ACE has mentioned the art of John Blanche as a direct influence, so a look around his website might give you an idea of where they're coming from. We're also told that the full thing will be "about the same length as a Half-Life episode", so around 4-6 hours would make sense.
Assuming the combat continues to flourish with the addition of new foes (and perhaps abilities), it will be an interesting lump of time, because at the moment Zeno Clash is deeply engrossing. As linear as it is, there's always a sense of wonder and exploration thanks to the beauty of the backgrounds, architecture and character design. Encounters are nicely paced, and take place against highly individual, if not unique enemies, and there's no good/evil moral dichotomy, no cookie-cut characters and no sign-posted storyline developments. Perhaps the best summary is one of ACE's own. Talking about Corwids - the game's nomadic population of semi-animal freaks - one of the game's developers states that their ultimate expression of freedom is insanity. On the strength of what we've seen, we'll raise a glass to that.
Zeno Clash is due out for PC this spring.