The first Zeno Clash was one of my favourite indie titles of recent years. A short, eclectic game that nevertheless made a lasting impression with its surreal world and haunting narrative. I was somewhat sceptical at the prospect of a sequel; Zeno Clash was so peculiar that trying to make weirdo lightning strike twice could have easily failed. I’m happy to report that those worries were ill-founded. ACE Team have succeeded in making a title that surpasses the original in practically every way. Zeno Clash 2 is a triumphant return to the eerie world of Zenozoik, one that gives the player more to marvel at and more to think about.
The Zeno Clash games don’t fit easily into a genre. They might be inadequately be called first-person beat-em-ups. In my review of the original Zeno Clash I compared the combat to bar-room brawling, so it’s fitting that the very first fight of the sequel takes place in a bar. The feel of Zeno Clash’s fights is a frantic, random struggle for dominance. Luck is often more of a factor than skill. This has a certain charm and is thematically fitting for a game set in a lawless, prehistoric world, but it is still unavoidably frustrating when the confusing nature of combat screws you over. Various clubs and non-lethal, prehistorically-themed guns made from animal bone and carcass (cavepunk?) are a feature, but take even more of a back seat than they used to with the removal of unlimited ammunition and the addition of breakable melee weapons. Like taxis, you’ll rarely find one when you need one and are liable to find a bunch when you don’t.
A number of other additions to the combat system keep it from getting stale. ZC2 adds an array of simple two-button combos. These are satisfying in theory, but navigating the disorienting, first-person 3D space makes it very difficult to pull off consecutive, well-timed hits on moving opponents with any kind of reliability. By contrast, I found myself using newly added special moves a lot more often. For the cost of energy, these deal high damage and send opponents flying. They’re especially useful for granting breathing space in more hectic fights or throwing enemies comically off cliff ledges. A handful of permanent secondary weapons collected throughout the main campaign also add spice to battles in interesting ways, and there’s also a wide cast of supporting characters who can be recruited to brawl alongside you. All these tweaks keep the fighting from getting as same-y as Zeno Clash 1. The fact that I could play a great deal of the newly added “arena” mode without getting bored is a testament to that.
Which is not to say the story mode is dispensable: it’s better than ever. ZC2 ditches discrete, linear levels for a bigger, explorable world that the player can freely snoop and backtrack around. To motivate exploration there’s also optional collectibles, discoverable lore, a few side-quests and a skill levelling system based around finding hidden totems. Don’t get the wrong impression, though, this game is still very short. I completed the main campaign in around six hours, which is about on par with the original. This time around, however, you’re getting a lot more bang for your buck. The art and design of the world, undoubtedly the highlight of the first title, is even more ambitious and striking in ZC2. Discovering a new area in ZC2 gives a thrill that can hardly be put into screenshots. The game is said to be inspired by the paintings of Bosch, and it shows; the colourful vistas of Zenozoik are peppered with giant stone limbs, strange geometric structures and colossal nonsense creatures. It might not be for everyone, but for the lovers of the surreal it’s worth a spin for the fascinating art style alone.
Alongside its weird art, the other great strength of Zeno Clash is its weird story. While the first game had some shared undertones, the core narrative was, in a sense, a “traditional” murder mystery. This time, some of the subtler themes in the original Zeno Clash are brought to the front, and characters are more likely to wax philosophical. The antagonist (villain would be too far) of the game is a creature known as Golem; a godlike being from an ancient civilisation who has come to bring the concept of law and morality to the primitive world of Zenozoik. He starts by building and staffing Zenozoik’s first prison. The protagonist, Gaht, is one of the few “Zenos” who rebels against his teachings, and sees the prison as monstrous. For the Zenos, there are no ethical rules that govern everyone or laws that ensure equality. The strong dominate the weak and the only punishment is vengeance. Yet to Gaht, the idea that someone would imprison another being for their actions even when they have no personal stake in the matter seems needlessly and arbitrarily cruel. It is a fascinating and radically unique conflict that the player is likely to see both sides of.
Video games have toyed with morality for decades now – from traditional heroes and playable villains to amoral anti-heroes and blank slates whom the player can ethically shape. Yet ZC2 may have gaming’s first morally ignorant protagonist. Some commentators found this to be a negative, and Gaht to be unlikeable. Yet I found Gaht’s struggle to be strangely relatable. Perhaps it’s because he manifests the nagging doubts that lurk in the civilised mind: fear that state violence may simply be the strong oppressing the weak, or fear that our ethical values are founded on nothing but illusion. Zeno Clash 2 is brief, and its gameplay, while fun, is still a little clunky. But it does things other independents dream of doing; it manages to be meaningful without being overbearing, original without being gimmicky. For that, it’s a highly valuable experience.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary PC code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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