The biggest problem with videogames is that there are just too many of them. It's impossible to play all of the ones you're interested in unless you have extremely niche tastes. On top of that there's always the possibility that games that were never on your radar will eventually interest you. Zeno Clash is that kind of game for me. I wasn't around when it hit the PC which is partly due to the fact that my computer can't run much of anything. In fact at the time I purchased the game on XBLA I thought all it had going for it was an amazing art-style. Thankfully I'm wrong and now I'm left hoping that more people give this underrated brawler a go.
Yep that's right I said brawler. In fact Zeno Clash is a first-person-brawler with shooter elements. This puts it an extremely niche sub-genre next to the likes of Breakdown and the Condemned series. So there you go if you're the kind of person that only likes those three games you may as well pick this up. Otherwise let's move on to the story.
Actually that's not a good idea because there's not much of an explanation I can give to the story. A young man is on the run after killing Father-Mother. Since this isn't an RPG this guy didn't kill his parents. He actually killed Father-Mother, a disturbing creature that stands about 15 feet tall, has the legs of an ostrich, the feet of a Velociraptor, and a distinctly long nose. Apparently this thing is both the Mother and Father of quite a large number of people, and they're all after you.
Joining you in this bizarre adventure is Daedra. She's supposed to be the "straight woman" in this story which essentially means she's the one left scratching her head while all of the other characters explain what's going on. She's alright though as she can be a helpful ally and for the most part she's the only person you can rely on.
The game is broken up into several chapters with each chapter having one or two stages. These stages are very straightforward as they mainly consist of the player having to beat up a handful of enemies before they're allowed to move on. There are a handful of unique scenarios like riding on a boat or the requisite boss-fights but considering the length of the game don't expect all that much. I'd say four hours is the bare minimum required to get through the campaign.
The Hero(?) is quite the scrapper as he has access to a light and a strong melee attack. The differences are obvious and the player must use these as the situation requires. That's not all though as he can also block, dodge to perform counters, kick enemies on the ground, and perform critical attacks when enemies are stunned. There are also weapons available which can be handy as they can be used infinitely though guns require almost constant reloading.
From the very beginning however the options available to the player are pretty limited in combat. This is due to the fact that he's almost always outnumbered. In a constant that hearkens back to the earliest beatemup the player will go to beat up one enemy and they'll find themselves surrounded and their attacks getting constantly interrupted. The only way to get around this is learn to how to maneuver which herd enemies into places where they aren't quite as dangerous. Enemies moving as a group can be dangerous but if the player were to lead one away from the pack they can slowly but surely wittle down the strength of the enemy.
Crowd-control is more than just trying to single foes out. The player can also grab stunned enemies and toss them around or throw a well-placed grenade to clear the area. There are also some very cool tricks available thanks to the way the system is designed. When an enemy is stunned the player can perform critical attacks on nearby enemies. This is a great way to disperse thugs as it'll free up some much needed space and do some great damage.
While the campaign is certainly a sight it's still quite short even by downloadable game standards. Thus the developer saw fit to include additional modes. There are five tower stages and three pit stages to play through. The towers are multiple floors of various enemy combinations. The goal is to beat everyone up and move on to the next stage as fast as possible. The pit is similar except it consists of various platforms that lead downward. These can be tricky since fall damage is a grave concern and the hero can only survive a one-floor drop. Both modes are certainly worth checking out and will add quite a bit of life to the game as the player works towards getting the best times. Online coop is also available here though it's best when two people have good connections. The netcode is solid but expect some delayed and potentially serious input lag if your connection isn't up to it.
The Zeno Rush mode is similar in that it takes various areas from the campaign and the player again must shoot for the best time. The variable here is the hammer they're given. This rather odd weapon has an hourglass wedged inside and hitting bad guys with it will reward the player with time taken off the clock. We're only talking a couple seconds here but you can be sure that every one of them counts. To keep players from abusing this weapon it like any other weapon in the game is rather unwieldy and will get knocked out of the player's hand if they're attacked while holding it. These modes are best taken on if you have friends that have also purchased the game so you can compare scores.
I'm not even sure if this sort of thing deserves mention but after completing the campaign a handful of cheats are unlocked. They provide a good incentive for replaying the campaign as some of them are pretty fun(like a cheat that causes enemies to attack each other). Better to have than have not I guess.
The biggest problem I have with this game is in the mechanics. I can understand somewhat as mechanics are very difficult for first-person brawlers. All the same however it's annoying having to perform blocks or dodges even when the enemy looks too far away for their attacks to connect. Granted this extra bit of reach extends to the player as well so at least it's not unbalanced. Still this can be especially annoying when dodging charging attacks or explosives since the damaging range is just a bit larger than expected. In the long run it becomes mere nitpicking but all the same it's worth mentioning.
Another nitpick is in how throwing is handled. It's great when it works but as with all things havok it tends to lose its effect when the enemy feels more like they're being discarded than being thrown. Some suplexes or other kinds of body-slams would have been amazing in this game and I assume the developers attempted it but couldn't quite get it to work.
Then there is the price. 1200 points is a tough sell for any XBLA game and the demo just doesn't give enough for the player to make a proper decision. For some the campaign is enough but for those that can't get into the fighting system don't expect the story to make up for it. It's a bit of a shame really because Zeno Clash could also stand to benefit from some exploration. It really wouldn't have to be anything to the point where it would take focus away from the game itself. It's such an imaginative and wondrous world that I'd love to just wander around, interact with the people beyond elbow smashes and head-butts, and really just see what there is to see. There's precious few moments in the game for that sort of thing and I'm left wanting more.
This is still a fully-featured game and despite the creativity that went into designing this world all of it is still secondary to the actual game which is quite good if you can get into it. There are some annoyances but ultimately they're pretty minor but if it turns you off for whatever reason whether it's the nature of the game, the price, or how the combat system works you may as well pass on this one. While there's hardly anything out there quite like this game in the end it's competing for your time and money with hundreds of thousands of other games. It's your call but as far as I'm concerned you could do a lot worse.