Zeno Clash 1 & 2, revisited

[I recently a got a new computer, so now I can run ZC2 properly. This is an update to my previous reviews.]

Zeno Clash 1

Weird game. Weird art style, weird characters, off the wall gameplay. Think Final Fight or Streets of Rage in 3D from the first person. Every level is basically a boss fight, and you get to use your hands to beat the crap out of everybody.

Every level is fight, fight, fight, run, dodge. Little else, and your companion character is totally useless. (What NPC tagalong isn't?)

As frustrating and repetitive as Zeno Clash is, it sure gets the blood pumping, and there is just enough story to keep things interesting. The world it shows us is fascinating and bizarre, and it has the audacity not to explain anything. I got that rare feeling there is a consistent story hidden under the surface, and that made me want to see it through to the end.

The revelation at the end is more than enough to make the game epic as hell. I was disappointed the game is so short, but the sequel makes up for that. The story that is only implied in this game is revealed in all its detailed glory in Zeno Clash 2. Think of this game as a prologue to its sequel.

Both games are overlooked gems. They deserve more attention.

Zeno Clash 2

The first Zeno Clash is a quirky, surreal, boss-brawling game. It's like Street Fighter 2 in 3D. It has just enough story to keep it interesting, the fighting is solid and satisfying, and the world it creates is bizarre and cool in its own way.

My only complaints with the first game were how repetitive it got, and the difficulty of fighting multiple foes at once. The development team must have listened to feedback like that because Zeno Clash 2 corrects those issues. Game 1 was boss fight after boss fight after boss fight, and it became tiresome (though it made for a delightfully intense experience). Game two takes a more open-world approach. Instead of being on a single path and stopping to fight everyone on it, now you have a whole world in which to wander.

But I can't call it "open world" gameplay. An open world has other places to visit, other people to meet and talk to, other stories to find. Zeno Clash 2 doesn't have as much of that as it should for how large the game world is. That is a little disappointing, but it is still a much needed break from the constant boss fighting of the first game. Now those fights are spaced out with some exploration.

There are other things to find in the world, though, and they are worth the effort to look around and explore every nook and cranny. Once I figured out what the cubes were for, it gave me something else to accomplish, and I wasn't disappointed when I found out what happened when I had all eight cubes.

Zeno Clash 2 has something the first game only implied: a story! The story is a little tricky to get into at first. Character motivation is a problem because it's not obvious why Ghat is breaking Father-Mother out of jail. After all that fuss in the first game discovering what Father-Mother really is, now they want him/her back?!

It does become clearer as the game progresses, and it all ties to who these people are, what Zenozoik is, and why everyone in it is fighting all the time. Yes, the game's core mechanic (brawling) is part of the story, and it's a clever way to justify it. It may be lost on a lot of players because it does require understanding events from an unusual point of view. For example, the Golem is trying to bring law and order to the world, so players who aren't into this world will wonder why the people of Zenozoik would be against it. It requires you to think about it from their point of view: law and order makes no sense when you can just fight out your troubles yourself. These are primitive, uncivilized people. To them, law and fairness is the chaos they must resist. Making the story take place from that point of view is refreshing, and it takes effort to understand.

When I first played the game, I foolishly didn't think to check the system requirements before buying it. I figured Zeno Clash 1 ran perfectly, so the sequel would also run! Wrong. New game engine, and my computer wasn't strong enough to handle it. I had to run the game on the lowest possible settings, and even then it barely ran. Now I have an appropriate computer, and playing it again is like playing it for the first time. The environment is gorgeous, and it is much easier to string combos together now that my computer is fast enough to render the game properly.

Zeno Clash 2 doesn't rely so heavily on brawling. In the first game, it's all you did. This time the guns do more damage, you have secondary weapons, and you can run and turn at the same time! Plus, it's open world, so you can run away from the fights to find health and weapons, and sometimes leave the area entirely. Finally, you can have up to two allies fighting with you! There are more options for how to play the game, which gives it more appeal than the first.

For me, the story is what saves Zeno Clash 1 and 2. We get to know who the people of Zenozoik are in the sequel, and why they're here. We finally learn who the Golem is, who those shadow things are, and what their purpose is. All the stuff missing from the first game is here, and it's a very well-done story told in an interesting and surreal way.

(Side note: I noticed the resemblance to the Wizard of Oz in the mountains level, and just minutes later, the game makes a self-conscious joke about it. Perfect timing.)

I can understand people's issues with the story, since it does require a stretch to understand. It could have been told in a much stronger way, but it's a game, so development is always geared towards gameplay. I would have liked more places to visit besides the objectives, too. What we have here could have been better, but it's still good and fun, the story makes sense, and it fleshes out the world into a fascinating and unique place.

If you haven't played the first Zeno Clash game, you're not going to understand the second. It tries to bring new players up to speed in the tutorial, but it's not enough; you must play the first game to enjoy the second. Zeno Clash and Zeno Clash 2 are underrated gems showing what a relatively small team can do with story and gameplay. I hope we revisit this world someday because I want to see more of it.


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