Zeno Clash is what would happen if Guillermo del Toro dropped acid and wrote a videogame storyline. This title is full of weird enemies, surreal visuals, somewhat disjointed story elements and a world so bizarre it defies logical explanation. I tried to explain the game itself to my wife and she said it defines “what the fuck”. Yet, everything I just described is merely the flavor of the downright bad-ass, knuckle-cracking time this game provides.
First, your character. A human named Ghat that starts of the game having savagely disfigured a creature known as father-mother, the leader of a clan in this town. The town of Halstedom. Father-mother’s clan runs the city alongside the Northern Gate Gang. It seems like this place is a veritable hive of scum and villainy as nearly everyone is part of either the clan or the gang, and there are very few laws being observed to the outside observer. At least, few laws outside whatever father-mother says. This leads one to submit to the supposition that father-mother (henceforth FM) is the monarch of the town, or at least influential enough to be a sort of leader of Halstedom. Not to mention, FM has his entire clan convinced that he’s their father and mother.
Now, why Ghat has decided to take on FM is beyond me, especially considering that FM is a 10-foot-tall peacock creature. Regardless, he escapes Halstedom with his hide intact where Deadra, crazy-horny heartthrob, follows him and helps him in his journey.. by being as flighty as possible. And by horny I mean she has enormous fucking horns coming out the sides of her head. No, seriously.
Now, I am not saying I would hide my sexuality from her in abject fear of her getting naked, but those horns would definitely do a number on my bedside table. I, mean, she probably never goes indoors, for that matter, but they do come off once, if memory serves. This being the only point where she is shown laying down looking dreamily into Ghat’s eyes. She is very naive considering she follows a known felon, who may have killed the only being either has ever known as father or mother, into the wilderness and away from the safety of the only home she’s ever known. To her credit, however, she is handy with her sawed-off shotgun and has some nice legs.
Despite the weak central female character, whose only function is to harass Ghat about FM’s secret and stand defensively out of the way of fights, the game still delivers in the place that truly matters. Gameplay. And here I introduce Metamoq and the Corwids. The Corwids are these guys Ghat describes enigmatically as being not insane, but having chosen to be what they are. So, they are fucking insane and do everything from eat people to bang their heads on trees. There is one guy that walks in a straight line and refuses to let anyone change his course. You find him later dead when he met the only nemesis a nutcase wearing giant iron boots has: a tree. And he runs into a fucking tree in a desert after making his way OUT OF A GODDAMN FOREST! Sorry. That is in no way important to the plot, but it was one of many WTF moments in this game. These not-crazy, but actually fucking insane, mask-wearing guys have some members that border on intelligent. Ghat was a Corwid for a while, which is how he knows so fucking much about them. Since each of them seems to really only do one thing, I am going to say Ghat’s “thing” was beating the fuck out of bitches with his bare hands. He never says what inspired this ascetic lifestyle either, nor what he did before that. At some point he meets Metamoq, a growly-voiced, mask-wearing, sentient booger that teaches Ghat how to beat people with his fists.
And beat people he does. This brings me to the best part of the game, its combat. You can punch and kick people. You can get super hard wind-up punches in. You can dodge and strike ’em in the ribs. You can even knee ’em in the face. Much fun to be had. You might expect a fighting game made with the source engine to be less maneuverable , or maybe generally difficult. Not so, and the first-person fighting makes things challenging in a way that doesn’t make it less enjoyable. Although this game holds a number of features reminiscent of older-generation fighting games like Double Dragon (ie slide-in versus screens and free-style fights and health bars), it fails to devolve into the button-mashing frenzy of those older games. And you can’t just use the “powerful attack” all the time since stronger enemies will just dodge that slow-ass punch. But timed well and as part of a combo, those attacks become devastating cards in a deck of whoop-ass. I discussed this with my brother, The Game Pirate and he said it reminded him of a game we played on the Nintendo 64 called Hybrid Heaven, and equally WTF-inducing fighting game. But where Hybrid Heaven focused on using the WWF’s finest spine-splintering attacks, Zeno Clash focuses more on its use of boxing-type moves. When you get tired of fisting everyone in sight, you can pick up any of a number of imaginatively fucking-weird guns. They are slow to reload and have shitty rate of fire, but this is a brawler at its heart, and even grenades are tough to use against enemies who do the logical fucking thing and run away. They also tend to hide if you have a gun and favor moving through cover to get to your position, rather than making it nice and easy by running across the giant open field to get in fist-range.
Some of the boss fights All of the boss fights are weird, and most of this game will leave you scratching your head. But don’t let that stop you because it damn well might.
So at some point you wander through a dark wasteland on the other side of a desert and find this guy named Golem waiting for you. He calls you and Deadra by name and says he was left by a long-dead race of wise people. Why everyone always thinks the “long-dead race of ancients who are wiser than us” thing makes sense I will never know. But if they were all that fucking wise, why are they ALL FUCKING DEAD?! Anyway, this guy has a human torso and a head, arms and feet made of blue playdough. He follows you around and even helps you kill a blind assassin, who uses squirrels with parachutes and powder keg backpacks to kill you. Then at some point he sits down and starts working on a fucking Rubick’s cube.
You bring him with you back to Halstedom and after finishing off FM, he reveals the secret FM has that Ghat is too much of a pussy to tell. Y’know, that the father-mother guy everyone is defending steals babies from their beds and raises them as his own. Also, he’s a guy. And he replaces the babies with baby pigs. You even run into a woman that seems perfectly happy with a new baby pig, too. Just bringing up baby Peter, or whatever. Once FM lays dying, the big blue guy pulls out his Rubick’s cube and it starts to glow. He says that he can help bring peace by bringing everyone in as part of a new connection that can never be broken. Screen zooms out, you see this weird guy with a telescope standing next to a completed Rubick’s cube and everything ends.
Now, this guy looks remarkably like one of those metallic shadow zombies that infested the wasteland where you find Golem. So part of me thinks his idea of peace is quite a bit more morose and sad than his words imply. All that just makes me want to play the sequel even more. Just bought it and set it to download. No game has had me as excited to play as Zeno Clash has since Half-life 2, and perhaps Hard Reset, so hopefully the sequel upholds all these points while gracefully embellishing upon them and simultaneously polishing its rough-points.
So, given everything about this game and how much fun it is, what bothers me the most about it? I have never said ‘what the fuck’ more times in more ways and for more reasons than I did while playing this game. I mean, the blind assassin first shows up and fights you from atop the head of this floppy elephant/brontosaurus.
The whole father-mother thing. Baby thievery being the basis for an entire city! Using squirrels as purveyors of fiery death! Giant horn-headed chick! Mostly-naked masked men dancing in the woods! There is a point where a Corwid spins in circles and plays music while hopping on one leg! Grenades are human skulls hollowed out and filled with explosives! The only non-caveman humans in the game seem to be wearing rice paddy hats for no reason! Did I mention this game was made by a bunch of Chileans? That rifle’s sight up there is a piece of wire! Regular-sized crabs spit vomitous goo! The giant chicken-dragon also vomit green goo! You can get a double-slingshot-crossbow as a ranged weapon! The ammo for said crossbow uses rocks that have faces! The faces have noserings where the trigger mechanism attaches! Oh, that rifle is reloaded by inserting a long rod with an orange-hot end into a metal loop on the back of the chamber and shutting a little door with it! This game deserves a what the fuck of the year award for the year 2009, when it was released. Seriously. I don’t think I will ever say what the fuck as many times in a row ever again. Oh, right there’s a sequel. The thing is, even this element of the game gives it a unique-ness that really cannot be matched. You could say that anything this bizarre couldn’t be called ‘art’ or ‘artistic’, and it doesn’t really have a deep moral meaning outside of ‘beat up baby stealing assholes with your bear hands’. But if you think bizarre cannot be artistic, just look at anything by Salvador Dahli. How about all that crazy, though awesome, music out of the 1970’s? (Pink Floydd, Led Zepplin, Jimmi Hendrix et al) This game’s unique approach and winning gameplay are guaranteed to lock you in and wtf you until the games conclusion. Which makes no more sense than nearly anything else about it. Surrealist art. Period.