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