I’m a sucker for melee-focused games. Anything that emphasizes brutal brawling and flashy martial arts, like Sleeping Dogs and Sifu, is totally my jam. So, I was both curious and stoked when my Xbox Series S, the bestie that it is, recommended I check out ACE Team’s Clash: Artifacts of Chaos. Unfortunately, I walked away confused and skeptical after some 10 or so hours with this action-adventure Soulslike because of its buggy design and obtuse mechanics. And now, I’m wondering whether my Xbox really knows me at all.
Artifacts of Chaos is ACE Team’s third entry in the fighting game series Zeno Clash which first punched its way onto Xbox consoles back in 2009. In this new game, you return to the fantasy world of Zenozoik as Pseudo, a martial artist suddenly tasked with protecting some Kuriboh-looking puffball named Boy. This Boy is gifted with magical powers that can curse or heal depending on his mood or something (the story doesn’t totally clarify the Boy’s powers), making him the object of desire by the tyrannical multi-armed, multi-headed big-bad Gemini and her cronies. So, in a similar fashion as 2018's God of War, you go around beating up monstrosities while ensuring the Boy remains safe in your gangly arms. It’s not the most original narrative, but that’s fine given how well the combat feels (when it works) and the captivatingly gross visuals on display.
In fact, these two elements—combat and graphics—are the main highlights in Artifacts of Chaos. If you’ve played the first two Zeno Clash games, then you’re already familiar with the highly saturated, Oddworld-esque aesthetic of Zenozoik. If not, imagine an interlocking world reminiscent of Team Ninja’s Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty (a masterclass of Soulslike game design) that was then richly lathered in vibrant yellows and greens, punctuated by bones, stones, and wooden tomes. Basically, it’s as if the developer stuffed the art styles of Earthworm Jim, Mad Max, and Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty into a blender to see what that would look like. And the result is disgusting but not in a pejorative sense. Artifacts of Chaos, while unimaginative in its storytelling, is wholly unique in its perverted beauty. Characters have deformed faces and limbs. Monsters, like a massive bull-looking creature, have jagged teeth and rotting flesh. The game is so gross, you can almost smell the stench of grafted bodies wading in the air as you navigate lush terrain and rocky pathways. As someone who’s never played Zeno Clash before, Artifacts of Chaos was an enthralling introduction to Zenozoik society. It didn’t matter that I regularly got lost during my journey. I was too busy taking in the absurd and surreal views, anyway.
Alongside basking in the ugliness of the world, Artifacts of Chaos has some crunchy melee combat as well. A third-person brawler that occasionally switches to first-person, the game lets you learn a variety of martial art stances (such as “lightning” that focuses on swifter strikes or “boxing” that emphasizes powerful hits) and moves (like a Shoryuken-style uppercut) to create a fighting style that’s uniquely yours. When combat works, it’s stylish and satisfying as you punch enemies right in their ugly faces. You can also do some cool fighting game shit, including dodge-canceling combos to reset your animations so you can keep the pressure up or performing special moves that can interrupt your opponent’s attacks. These moments, when you’re strafing your enemy and monitoring their movements for the right time to get in to throw some bows, absolutely rule, especially when you send their corpse careening off a mountainside like a rag doll. It’s hilariously brutal, making for a challenging yet gratifying combat experience that sees you battling humongous troll-like eyesores, frightening three-legged beasts, and other unspeakable horrors.
While combat and graphics are standouts here, the rest of Artifacts of Chaos’ package is mid at best and obtuse at worst. For starters, the map is buried in the game’s rudimentary menus. Besides, it’s not all that helpful, showing only the names of locations but not the paths required to get there. There’s also no compass or marker, so navigation is more about intuition and memorization than the game guiding you to the next location. This might be customary for a Soulslike game, but you know what else is, too? Placing nodes on the map to help point you to where you want to go. That’s not present here. On top of the game’s directionless design, Artifacts of Chaos ran like total garbage on my Series S. It’s no secret that the Series X’s cuter sibling has performance issues, but in the 10 or so hours I’ve put into the game, it’s crashed at least 10 different times and soft-locked me from progressing further a handful of others. This is poorly optimized, with stuttering animations, characters that miraculously blast off hundreds of feet into the air, and enough bugs that make Cyberpunk 2077 look competent. It’s a mess of a game that’s marred by a lack of explanation and no real way to relearn the brief tutorials you miss in the heat of combat.
Then you get to the ritual, the “only law” in the game’s world. A dice-throwing board game initiated at the start of major encounters, this little minigame will give a battle advantage to whoever ends up with the highest score. By placing artifacts and winning the ritual, you can force your opponent to drink a slow-acting poison before the fight begins, make them wear a rotting fish head throughout the bout in humiliation, and the like. The same can happen to you, too, so it’s crucial you win to get somewhat of an edge in the tougher exchanges, especially when you’re going up against two or three gnarled foes at once. It’s a neat mechanic that, after a few runs, becomes totally inconsequential as there’s an element of randomness (insofar as the number you get after throwing your dice) and the effects make no big difference because enemies have such massive health pools. You can bypass the ritual entirely to get right into the melee action, which is what I did after a while. I thought the wins were helping me succeed, but in actuality, they were costing me my life. Coupled with the game’s bugginess and the enemy’s cheap antics during the ritual—doing things like destroying my dice and reducing my score—I wound up yeeted from my gangly body and left to explore the scary night.
It’s nightfall when the Soulslike design really comes full circle. Nighttime happens when you either rest at a camp or die in a fight. See, Pseudo is actually a wooden puppet that’s somehow animated to move and talk. He can equip various body parts in this form that strengthen his attack and defense while also being able to traverse thornier paths now that his skin is removed. The world slightly changes at night, as well, with tougher enemies roaming around looking for skulls to bash in and shortcuts opening up for simpler travel. In this way, it’s a bit like Dying Light 2. It’s much harder to explore at night.
However, because you’re just a wooden husk with no skin, Pseudo is also extremely weak at night, making the game more obtuse and perilous than it already was. And if night has fallen because you’ve died, you’re forced to trek back to wherever your body was last laid out. Unfortunately, because the map is unhelpful and there’s just a thin gold pillar of light barreling toward the dark sky, indicating the approximate location of where your body is, it’s entirely possible to die again before you even get close to where the enemy buried your head. This is one of the most innovative designs to be implemented in a Soulslike, but it’s pointless because the map doesn’t highlight your dead body. You could wander aimlessly before ever reaching it. And in typical Soulslike fashion, if you die in this wooden form, you lose everything. Your skill points, the weapons you’ve collected, whatever ingredients you picked up—all gone because they were attached to your flesh.
I like the juxtaposition between day and night exploring as there’s an interesting risk-reward system at play here. Stay out late to gain more experience, but rest up till the morning to get your skin back. It’s just a shame that so much of the game is so buggy that it borders on unplayable. I mean, there were several instances when, after making it back to my body, I couldn’t reenter it no matter how many times I pressed the interact button.
So, yeah, Clash: Artifacts of Chaos is the most obtuse Soulslike I’ve played thus far. There are some compelling ideas at play here and I’m in love with the hefty, pleasurable melee combat. It’s just that everything else here isn’t great. ACE Team has built a cool exterior with some decent bones. But the lack of polish and the brittle design causes the game to crumble under its own body weight. I really wanted to like this one, but ultimately, I don’t think Artifacts of Chaos is one you need to check out right now. Now excuse me while I have a long talk with my Xbox Series S about this recommendation.