Developer: ACE Team
If the Conan and Star Wars universes had a baby, it would be called Zeno Clash. The game takes place on Zenozoik, a planet sometimes similar to Tatooine, with bars and buildings like those of Mos Eisley (the city with the bar where ‘Greedo shot first’). On the flip side, the inhabitants are fairly barbaric and tend to talk more with their fists than their mouths; so not dissimilar to the Hyborian Age of Conan. The combination is actually a very compelling one; completely unexpected, but in a weird way not entirely foreign.
The rest of the game is like that as well – a spin on the first person genre, but not to the point of alienating the gamer. From a gameplay perspective, it’s a first person brawler and yes, that aspect is as awesome as it sounds. I wouldn’t say it’s a fighting game anywhere near the nuance of, say, Street Fighter, but it does have simple combos and “special moves” that can be unleashed after a proper button sequence or when you build-up your stamina meter enough. In fact, I’d put it somewhere between a traditional fighting game and Mirror’s Edge, whose fighting isn’t as integral as it is in Zeno Clash.
Where things really take a turn towards the bizarre are the visuals. Landscape and character design is… well… hallucinatory at best. Like Jim Henson dropped acid, went on a really dark trip, and then tried to candy-coat the characters to be less nightmare-inducing for children. Again, I was reminded of the Mos Eisley tavern; all kinds of half-man/half-animal beasts, but this time they all want to pick a fight with you, balking and squawking as they attack. Seriously, if Guillermo del Toro needs inspiration for his next creature feature he needn’t look any further than Zeno Clash 2, because Pan’s Labyrinth ain’t got nothing on it.
Following the conclusion of the first game, Ghat’s parent, FatherMother (basically a combination of Roald Dahl’s BFG and a vulture), is imprisoned by a Golem for stealing children. Ghat, feeling responsible for bring the Golem around and ruining his family, decides to free FatherMother, but in doing so basically starts a punchy-kicky war with the Golem. So basically, Rocky 4, but instead of Drago it’s a dude with magical powers that looks like he’s out of Mad Max 2: the Road Warrior.
While the franchise is incredibly unique, Zeno Clash 2 is very similar to the first game. Aside from a barrel full of ass-kickery, there’s not much else. The silver lining is that, like most games in the fighting genre, it takes quite a bit to get bored of punching different creatures in the face and maximizing damage. Blocking, dodging, unleashing stronger but slower attacks, are all based on perfecting your timing, so even though you’re essentially doing the same thing over and over it’s part of the game’s appeal. Kind of like the ass-kicking version of tetris? When the pieces fit together it’s satisfying enough to look passed all the near misses you had previously.
The story, on the other hand, seems to be even less cohesive than Zeno Clash 1. While the first game was fairly straight-forward (Ghat was on a quest to find answers about his lineage), the second opens up to multi-dimensional beings and trying to put the genie back in the bottle while everyone in Zenozoik seemingly has a grudge against you. At times it actually feels like you’re getting attacked at random, with very little reprieve. Walk a bit, fight a bit, walk some more, fight some more, and then there’ll be a little exposition scene that tries to add huge philosophical depth to the narrative. While it’s a consistent walk-fight-walk-talk formula, I’d say it’s hardly necessary to indulge a narrative that is this peculiar. May as well focus more on the face-punching and be done with it; there’s no point getting caught up in details that try to make sense of something that’s fairly inexplicable.
There are a couple of other “enhancements” to Zeno Clash 2, the most notable of which is the group fighting. I don’t remember the first game’s fights involving such a large amount of adversaries per fight. In ZC2, it seems like every altercation has you taking on half a dozen bad guys simultaneously. This wouldn’t be a bad thing if the lock-on system was better, but as it stands I constantly found myself getting overwhelmed, back-pedaling out of a group, finding a singular target, unleashing a combo, and then back-pedaling as his cronies regrouped on me.
You can also call on an ally to fight with you, but your AI teammate is useless, serving more as a distraction for one of the half-dozen other opponents and not dealing any damage whatsoever. Fortunately there's co-op which definitely makes taking on larger groups easier, but the implementation is somewhat less integral than the co-op modes of games like Gears or Portal. Still nice to have though.
Another neat addition that could've been expanded upon further is upgradeable abilities. While very RPG-lite, you can increase your health, stamina, strength, and leadership abilities by collecting totem points. Of the four, I'd say Health is the most useful, if only because there aren't enough health packs laying around the world to replenish yourself after getting into a few brawls. Leadership is pointless because, as mentioned, your AI teammates are pretty much useless.
Because the first game was so refreshingly different — unique to the point where only an indie developer could have pulled it off — I really wanted to like Zeno Clash 2 more than I actually did. It’s a shame really, as it would’ve been nice to increase the franchise's/developer’s exposure with a well-rounded sequel. However, as it stands, the first game is still a purer face-punching bonaza to get your kicks from. That said, if you’ve already played through the first game and liked it, Zeno Clash 2 is worth the $20 merely to find out what wackiness happens next in Ghat’s completely kooky and often awkward adventure.