Zeno Clash opens with the protagonist, Gaht, being chased from his hometown of Halstrom by a small army of his siblings. Gaht is wanted for killing Father-Mother, a huge, birdlike hermaphroditic creature capable of reproducing asexually. Father-Mother is Gaht’s father and mother, and also the father and mother of largest family in Halstrom. Father-Mother’s children do not resemble him/her, but range in form from human (like Gaht) to terrible beasts and everything in between. Gaht’s journey is both a struggle for survival and a search for meaning in his life. Exiled from his home, he is forced to fight his vengeful siblings and the hostile inhabitants of the wilderness. All the while, nursing a terrible secret- his motive for killing Father-Mother- which even the player is kept in the dark about.
There’s a subtle art to building a world, especially one so divorced from our reality. Drunken Robot Pornography, the last game I reviewed, is a good example of how not to do it. In that game, uniqueness felt shallow; a result of throwing random “quirky” things against a wall and seeing what stuck. By contrast, the eerie, beautiful world of Zenozoid pulls you in with its authenticity. There’s no sweeping overview of the setting, no encyclopedic lore to collect and read over, hardly even any introduction. And yet, the world feels as though it extends far beyond the confines of the game. Your trip into Zenozoid will have you itching to uncover its secrets. The mind will grasp ceaselessly for categories to make sense of Zeno Clash’s setting- is it fantasy? Prehistoric? Apocalyptic? This is a setting so bursting with artistry and originality that a short indie game is almost too small a container for it.
Zeno Clash is a first-person-fighter. Think of it as a FPS with its priorities switched. Most FPS games throw in some melee combat, but this form of assault is usually less fleshed out compared to shooting. Zeno Clash is the other way around. It has guns and bows, but they take a back seat to bare-knuckle boxing. There are a few levels where shooting is absolutely necessary, but mostly you will be talking with your fists. The combat is nowhere near as complex or varied as traditional fighting games, but takes a more intense, realistic route. There’s no flashy super-moves, but you can really feel the weight of your strikes, and there’s a special satisfaction in hearing the crunch of your opponent’s face under your fist. Two interesting features keep guns from dominating your fistfights. First, technology in Zenozoid is not very far advanced, and as such guns are rickety, primitive, non-lethal things. Secondly, a strong punch knocks the weapon out of the hands of the wielder, whether they be an enemy or the player. This adds to the chaotic bar-brawl feel, as fights can devolve into a frantic tussle for the one rifle in the room.
There’s an interesting and enjoyable dichotomy here; Zeno Clash’s setting is so otherworldy, yet the combat feels brutally real. Despite its oddness, Zenozoid is not high fantasy. This is not a world of magic spells and wizard schools, it’s a harsh, primitive place where supremacy is a matter of beating your opponents with your bloody fists. The characters have a compelling, mythical quality about them. No-one in Zeno Clash actually dies from combat- they are only knocked out. Because of this, the game is able to drop the standard approach to enemies: instead of hordes of nameless, reskinned mooks, every fight in Zeno Clash is with named characters, all of which pop up for rematches. This vendetta aspect goes some way to prevent staleness in the combat, which doesn’t change much from the first fight onwards. Despite the robustness of the world, the game is totally linear and its levels are small and restrictive- essentially rings for your next showdown. Without the richness of its story, characters and setting, Zeno Clash may have been pretty average.
Zeno Clash is a very short, contained experience. It only lasts a few hours, there are no secrets, scores, choices or alternate methods of approach. As such, though it’s enjoyable, it doesn’t in any obvious way tempt you towards replaying. Replay it anyway. Zeno Clash needs to be run through at least twice if it is played at all. Like all good mystery stories, viewing it again with the knowledge of its secrets gives new and terrifying insight. Keep your eyes peeled for details you overlooked the first time. At times, the script gives way to genuine profundity. There are serious themes here, about family, about society, about how to live a good life. They are visible enough to be picked up on, but not overbearing.
Zeno Clash is like a fable from an alien world, but its lessons are human. Admittedly, it will not be to everyone’s tastes, and there isn’t a huge amount of gameplay content. But if you’re willing to let yourself be immersed in a short, strange story, give Zeno Clash a chance to move you, and haunt you.
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