Indie platformers, we've seen. Indie adventure games too. But indie first-person shooters that moonlight as first-person brawlers? That's fresh. That's Zeno Clash.
You couldn't login to Steam or go near a PC forum over the past month or so without running into talk about Zeno Clash, a game from tiny Chilean studio ACE Team that's built on Valve's Source engine. And most of that talk – and subsequent interest – seems to have stemmed from the games "unique" visual style, which is unlike, well, anything we've ever seen.
But is the rest of the game as memorable as its looks?
Look At Me – You can't fault the game's attempts at standing out from the crowd. Everything from the character design to the environment to the colour palette is fresh and original, as though Gaudi just finished Oblivion then went then went and read some Heavy Metal. If you're looking for a game that's as far removed from the dreary Gears of Wars and Killzones of the world, this is it.
Face-Punching – While there is shooting to be had in Zeno Clash, the bulk of the game takes place in contained "arenas", facing off against 2-4 opponents, where guns are a lot less useful than your fists. And here, everything about the game – from the little "vs" slide-in animation to the range of moves and combos available – changes. It stops being a linear, corridor-based shooter and becomes a first-person fighting game. Which, as an idea, is certainly different.
World To Let – The game world is just…empty. Lifeless. You only face a handful of characters over and over and over, while a fascinating world that could have been ripe for adventure and exploration is instead reduced to a handful of linear shoot-outs and fighting arenas. It really could have done with less brawling with the same handful of characters, more sequences involving peripheral characters and exposition.
Punched in the face – Just because it's different doesn't mean it's good (as in, I admire the idea, just not its execution). While a Zelda-like lock-on system helps you out in smaller tussles, during larger fights a lack of peripheral vision (a consequence of their decision to make the game first-person) means you'll often be ganged up on without you knowing, and collision detection – for both melee and ranged attacks – is woeful.
Poor Gunplay – The game has melee, yes, but also guns. There are corridor-based FPS sections to navigate before you reach a melee "arena", and even then, there'll normally be firearms around to use if you'd like. But you won't. Most only allow one or two shots before you need to reload, and reloading takes so long you'll often get punched in the face before you're done. Which knocks the weapon out of your hand. This would be OK if the melee combat worked, but, well, yes.
The Never-Starting Story – It's a shame that the game's narrative and dialogue don't match the impact of its visual design. The story jumps and skips seemingly important aspects, picking you up from point A and landing you at point F. Some flashback sequences help, but ultimately, like the world itself, the story feels a bit empty, while the conclusion is both a let-down and a teasing frustration at the same time.
Recycling - This game is short. You'll finish it in around 4-6 hours. Which would be OK if it were 4-6 hours of original content (it is $20, after all), but you end up fighting the same recycled characters over and over and over, which is both frustrating and a too-obvious attempt at padding the game out. I'd rather have played a shorter, less repetitive title than fight the same bad guy seven times.
Look, Zeno Clash deserves to be applauded on a number of fronts. Its bold style makes a pleasant change from the industry's general preoccupation with the browner end of the colour palette, and its attempts at bringing a degree of complexity and variety to first-person combat are a brave attempt at shaking up the nature of melee combat in the genre.
A discount price is also a plus, and at $20, many of you will overlook the game's shortcomings, if not because you're paying less for the game, then because you're aware that such a small development team can't afford the polish and extra bells and whistles you may be hoping for/expecting.
Zeno Clash was developed by ACE Studios, released April 21st for the PC. Retails for $20. Completed singleplayer campaign, played multiple challenge room skirmishes.
Confused by our reviews? Read our review FAQ.