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Review: Zeno Clash

A strange and beautiful trip
By MADDY MYERS  |  May 19, 2009
3.0 3.0 Stars

VIDEO: The trailer for Zeno Clash

Zeno Clash | for Microsoft Windows | Unrated | Developed by ACE Team | Published by Valve Corporation
ACE team's first project proves that indie game developers are free to reinvent the wheel. Zeno Clash is too bizarre, artsy, and risky to get picked up by a bigger company, but when you look at all the Counter-Strike clones out there, it's a relief to see something a little . . . different. Zeno Clash blends beauty and creepiness with its mystifying story and sweeping landscapes. It's clear that ACE is not afraid to bring both weirdness and innovation back to PC gaming.

Both art and story alienate and disorient you — Zeno Clash explains almost nothing about its fantasy universe. The game plops you down in the middle of a plot point and you hit the ground running. You're Ghat, a normal-looking human in a world full of bird humans, mutated humans, dinosaur-like monsters, and other beings that defy description. At the outset, you discover that you've just killed your Father-Mother, the hermaphrodite bird-human hybrid (just go with it) who spawned you. Your conveniently human-looking love interest, Deadra, takes your side and follows you as you go on the run from avenging siblings. Her main purpose appears to be exposition: she asks questions about your behavior, and that helps, because otherwise you would never know why Ghat does anything. But you'll find yourself wishing Deadra would ask more questions, because the plot makes about as much sense as a bad dream.

Zeno Clash starts out hard and gets harder. Your first "real" battle after training is against three of your siblings, who gang up on you. The fighting style is melee combat from a first-person perspective, with the occasional gun or piece of health-providing fruit lying around. You'll come across a few monster bosses and crazy persons in the woods (there's a blind guy riding a giraffe dinosaur who throws exploding rodents), but your recurring foes are your pissed-off sister and her cohort. Once you get the hang of blocking and dodging, the techniques will stick with you, but the battles will grow increasingly difficult as more and more people gang up on you.

You could focus on honing your up-close melee combat, or you could take advantage of the game's few guns. These weapons are made out of sticks and shells, and they have an extremely slow reload time. They do well enough if you manage to hold onto them, but if someone punches you once, you'll drop your weapon. If you prefer sniping in your shooters, though, you can still do that in Zeno Clash. You'll have to run and find new cover if your enemies get close enough to punch your gun away, but you can beat the game and the bosses just by gunning if you choose.

If you play through the four to six hours of story and still want more, there's a Challenge Mode that involves battling your way up a tower against various creepy combatants. Challenge Mode is both more difficult and more addictive than Campaign Mode, and ACE promises to continue to release free add-ons to it, so you can get more bang for your buck.

And, yes, the buck: Zeno Clash is only $20. True, it's short, but some major developers publish games of this length and try to sell them to you for $60. Given that it's the first title released by a completely new independent company, Zeno Clash is quite impressive. So don't download it illegally — these guys deserve your money.

Related: Review: Left 4 Dead, Review: The Bigs 2, Review: Left 4 Dead 2, More more >
  Topics: Videogames , Valve, videogame reviews
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