Zeno Clash (PC)
The Bordeu brothers have serious cojones. Ambition is one thing -- but when you're setting out to make a commercial game in the living room of your apartment, with a team consisting mostly of your siblings, in a country not known for game development (Chile), you have a choice: A) Attempt a style of gameplay that is notoriously difficult to execute; B) Create a fictional world unlike anything ever seen in a videogame; or C) Create a visual style unlike anything ever seen in a videogame. But with Zeno Clash, the maiden psychedelic voyage of the Bordeus' Ace Team, these guys do all three. Amazingly, they pull it off.
Zeno Clash is a first-person brawler/surreal adventure game. I say adventure, though the game lacks any of the hallmarks of the genre. There are no puzzles to solve, no items to pick up (well, no items that can't be used to brain a bad guy), and it's one of the most transparently linear games I've played in years. Yet, like a great adventure game, Zeno Clash sends you off on a voyage into a world that demands exploration.
And this world is something special: Vibrantly colorful, richly dark, filled with warped, impractical architecture, and populated by grotesque animal-human characters, the world of Zeno Clash shitcans all the nerd-approved notions of fantasy. No wizards and dragons here. The Bordeu brand of fantasy is actually fantastic, rendered in a style that triangulates the Sex Pistols, Hieronymus Bosch and "The Flintstones." It's f***ing weird.
And so is its story. You see, there's this guy named Ghat, a scrawny-but-tough kid who leaves his insular province to explore the world around him. This doesn't please Father-Mother, Ghat's bird-legged, male-female progenitor. A family feud develops when Ghat returns home, armed with a secret about Father-Mother. Ghat's entire family sets out to kill him, sending him (and his mysterious girlfriend Deadra) deep into the weird world of Zeno Clash.
Mostly, you explore this world while moving forward. Along the way, however, you won't be able to resist stopping to admire the details of the spaces around you, and the little stories they tell. You will, for example, run into a character named Oximeter, a man whose singular purpose in life, you're told, is to walk in an uncompromising straight line. When you find him, as you walk along in an early level, he's pressed head-first against an uncooperative palm tree, dead.
Sometimes Zeno lets you bring a gun to a fistfight, but they're pretty hard to hang onto around aggressive brawlers.
I'm making this sound like some kind of bizarre, completely un-fun art game, but the vast majority of Zeno Clash consists of surprisingly well-executed first-person fist-fighting. Many games have tried and failed in this arena, but the Bordeus somehow manage to get it right. Every move has serious weight, and a good uppercut will knock an opponent yards back. Connecting with a heavy punch in Zeno Clash feels incredibly brutal, like swinging wrecking ball through a glass factory. Beyond that basic sensation, the game mixes things up competently, with a few different attacks, evasive maneuvers and occasional weapons. Unfortunately, the weapons never quite feel as polished as the fisticuffs, and a squirrely lock-on mechanic becomes more and more frustrating as the number of opponents you fight at once increases toward the end of the game. Expect a certain amount of frustration.
I also sensed the game bumping up against the limitations of a small team and a meager budget. In much of the final third, you tread back through previously played areas to fight previously defeated enemies, a no-no for a game that lasts around four hours. But the sheer amount of imagination beaming out of Zeno Clash should melt the nitpicking hearts of the permanently jaded. This is a rare game.
This review is based on a downloadable copy of the game provided by the publisher.