Version tested: PC
Picture this. Gaudi's breathtaking Barcelona Cathedral, the Sagrada Familia. Exquisite carvings cover every surface, depicting creatures beyond comprehension. The baking sun streams through rainbow-hued stained glass, suffusing everything with shimmering colour. But there's no Mass being held. No blessing, priest or sacrament. There's some incense burning, but its perfume is the acridity of hallucinogens rather than salvation.
On the floor of the nave, where an altar should stand, is a wrestling ring. The ropes are spun gold, the mat is woven from Dalis, the turnbuckles are jewel-encrusted gargoyles. In the centre stands a six-foot mouse - four flapping breasts loosely held by a leather harness - and a horrifying bird-man, munching on the eyes of a violently coloured pheasant. In the midst of all this beauty and elegance, the two begin to fight. Screaming, they kick, punch, elbow and knee each other with incredible violence, viciously and unrelentingly.
This is Zeno Clash.
Now that your hyperbole filters are fully engaged, let's skip back to the basics.
Zeno Clash is a PC only, independently produced first person brawler. Released on Steam and Direct 2 Drive yesterday, it's a product of Chilean developer ACE Team. It's beautiful, brutal and, in many ways, brilliant.
It's been on my horizon, dressed in a big, colourful 'watch-me' hat, for some time now, alternately dancing like a loon and kicking me in the chest. As anyone who's been following the game will tell you, it looks incredibly distinctive. Created using the relatively long-in-the-tooth Source engine, Zeno Clash swerves away from the spectre of visual realism, straight into the oncoming traffic of fever-dream imagery: Hieronymous Bosch, Neil Gaiman and the Muppets which live in David Cronenberg's head.
Environments are lushly crafted and massively colourful, while enemies range from the queasily quasi-familiar to the outright sexually grotesque. Ghat's hermaphroditic 'parent' FatherMother, a key character, is a ten foot-tall half-chicken with a dirty mac full of babies and shadow.
For every image that disturbs, however, there's one which takes your breath away with its beauty. The open vista of the purple desert sky, peppered by planets and the curmudgeonly heads of four storey high giraffe-beasts, plays host to an excellent boss battle, familiar to those who've played the preview. The town of Halstedom, which you escape from at the start of the game, is a hodge-podge of vibrant architectural styles, Star Wars markets and eerie Gothic towers.
As the storyline takes Ghat on a whistle-stop tour of Zenozoik, environments change rapidly and completely. Areas rarely bear any resemblance to the preceding or following location. Vivid, arresting and unconventional, the visual style somehow remains chaotically coherent. It feels like a place. A place where your brother is a sociopathic retard macaw.
Gameplay is violent and straightforward. Make the other 'people' fall over and bleed. When they do, kick them violently in the spine so they stay there. Combat is involving and complex. An array of punches, kicks, blocks and combos connect with hugely emotive thwacks, squeals and squelches.
It feels violent. It makes me feel pretty violent. I'm easily immersed in games, yet I'm a pacifist on the whole. Often I found my jaw clenched with vicarious aggression, a feeling in my hind-brain which I usually associate with too much cider and the wayward form of Gabriel Agbonlahor. The immediacy is surprising - even given the outlandish nature of the world I found myself drawn in, feeling every blow dealt and taken.
The first fight pits you against a few of your siblings: a bipedal parrot, a half-pig and a relatively normal female in a lovely hat. I started out with some fairly middle-of-the-road beatings. Quick one-twos to the chops. A hefty charge punch when the beasts were briefly dazed. Occasionally I'd step in and grab their dizzy heads, pistoning a knee into their faces before tossing them from the bridge-based bazaar into the gulch below.
Once, I got subtle and used timed blocks to put them off balance, shifting sideways and countering with haymaking hooks. However you do it, the chances are that when you're finished, your heart will be racing and the surly sneer of victory will be creeping across your lip. Rarely have I experienced a game with so much raw kinetic energy.
Each 'round' takes place in a small arena, from city back-alleys to metallic wastelands. Player character Ghat will turn up and be assaulted by various members of the insane menagerie - sometimes singly, usually in groups. Occasionally he'll be assisted by the charming Deadra, a buffalo-hatted chum whose human appearance and willingness to help mark her out as a potential love interest. Fights begin with a flashed up 'announcement' of the roster of combatants but reinforcements will often pile in, invariably on the AI's side, part-way through the scrap.
Because Ghat is so often outnumbered, players need to manoeuvre cleverly to avoid getting trapped in a scrum of punches. Get surrounded and it's check-out time. Even the fleetest of foot will find themselves beaten senseless by a mob, attacks landing from all sides more quickly than they can be blocked.
It can be frustrating as it feels unfair, especially given that the arrival of enemies isn't always announced and that their approach is usually silent. Keeping on the move is one way of countering this, and it's always wise to keep an eye out for approaching foes, but it's one of the few times when Zeno Clash feels cheap.
By the time you're about half-way through there will be a usefully diverse range of moves in your arsenal, although it's often a bit too hectic to take a properly tactical approach. When beset by groups of three or more the best tactic is still mobility.
The other option is to pick up one of the many weapons littering the battlefields. Close-quarters varieties come in club and hammer forms, with ranged weaponry represented by a grenade launcher, a twin crossbow, a very Tusken musket and a pair of fish pistols. They're all depicted in a consistent visual style, appearing to have been scavenged from the esoteric materials of the world itself.
There's never any real explanation of how and why gunpowder weapons exist in this bizarre, clockwork and adobe world, but there's no real need for one. They have their uses - keeping groups of enemies at bay with firearms can clear some much needed space, and some particularly bulky enemies can only be bested by blunt instruments – but I found myself using, and far preferring, the raw slap of knuckles on faces. The weapons take away some of the wonderful immediacy of the combat and can feel clumsy and imprecise in comparison to the snappy, satisfying hand-to-hand.
The story chronology is non-linear, but I don't want to release any spoilers here. Suffice to say Zeno Clash won't win any awards for narrative, but the plot does constitute a welcome change from boys waking up on beaches with amnesia. One of its strengths is meandering insanity - hitting just the right balance between intriguing and expositional, hooking without spoon-feeding.
Don't expect it to make a lot of sense though; more than a touch of Lynchian audience interpretation is required. Much of it is told in flashbacks, with occasional combat tutorials from old mentor Metamoq worked in.
It's hard to say what Zeno Clash feels similar to. In terms of gameplay and perspective it's not too far from the pugilistic aspects of Fallout or Oblivion, perhaps even Riddick. The arena-style fights and the way in which they are separately instanced brings to mind side-scrolling fighters of yore, Final Fight or Double Dragon. The art and visual style... Well, there's no real parity with anything specific there, the screenshots speak for themselves. Playing it really puts you in a totally different world - pure violent, escapist morphia.
Be warned that Zeno Clash, in line with its budget pricing (GBP 13.95 on Direct2Drive, GBP 14.99 on Steam), is short. Probably around 6-7 hours on the toughest difficulty. Maybe 20 fights all told. There's a challenge mode as well, which cuts to the quick of gameplay by asking you to fight your way up consecutive levels of a tower, populated by increasingly dangerous foes. It's tough, often throwing several tough foes at Ghat in melee whilst various other beasts pepper him with projectiles.
There's no multiplayer here but leaderboards record the best clearance times for each floor, keeping you up to date with your friend's capabilities. For the competitive or the completist it'll add a few more hours of play, but it lacks the engaging weirdness of the main campaign.
There are faults, mostly with the engine - such as when the reach of enemies seems unpredictable, or when groups of enemies turn you to bloody pulp because you're stuck on some scenery. When the health-giving fruits which grow all over Zenozoik become trapped under objects or beyond fences. Or when the inexplicable use of the same button for picking up items and locking onto enemies disorientates, frustrates and confuses. The disappointing final fight and the backtracking which occupies a large part of the endgame are a let down, especially when the sense of discovery and wonder has been such an invigorating carrot.
And yet... Despite its undeniable lack of polish, it's hard not to recommend Zeno Clash almost wholeheartedly. It's one of those games which I feel that everyone should play, just to see what sort of universe can be presented by a game, given the right stretches of imagination.
ACE Team has clearly poured its heart and soul into Zeno Clash, creating a wonderful universe which it would be criminal to abandon after this single title. It's easy to wonder if the game could have been something grander, given the time and development resources, a sprawling open-world quester, a quirky first person adventure, even a multiplayer fighter. As it is, Zeno Clash remains a fantastically involving and solid fighting game, enhanced by being set in one of the most imaginative and beautiful universes in the medium.
8 / 10