'Zeno Clash: Ultimate Edition' Review - No Need To Be Zenophobic

Zeno Clash Review header

By now you've probably heard that "Zeno Clash" is weird. It's almost impossible to relate just how true this is: ACE Team's inspiration for the game was, seemingly, drawn from an imprisoned mad scientist's LSD-laced fancies.

Xbox 360 owners weren't able to get their hands on ACE Team's inspired FPS brawler until yesterday morning when "Zeno Clash: Ultimate Edition" was finally released over Xbox LIVE Arcade. A couple of new modes and tweaks say "hello" in this version, but the weird stuff is very much present.

The Basics

"Zeno Clash" is a first-person brawler set in a bizarre, stylized world where a beaked hermaphroditic horror called "Father-Mother" is an accepted and guarded paternal fixture. You'll play as Ghat, a flat cyber-punk caricature of a tough guy with a tribal twist, who is trapped in a circular narrative that begins with the murder of Father-Mother and follows him as he relives his past and forges ahead.

"Zeno Clash" is a rollercoaster of a game that delivers a piecemeal collection of geographic and set-piece oddities, and also allows for more than just bare-knuckle action. You'll be able to shoot ancient, stylized weapons and explore a narrative that will undoubtedly dazzle you with its peculiar pulls and visual delights. In this particular version of the game, you'll be able to engage in a co-op "Horde"-style mode called "Tower Challenge," and a time-based fight mode dubbed "Zeno Rush."

The Highs

How Weird Can it Get?

The bold visual art and setting in "Zeno Clash" is nightmarish and exotic, rich with surreal and twisted depictions of the familiar. The denizens are broken, wretched beings surviving and existing in constructs or environments built by fevered men (or Beksinski). In all, the universe is an interesting, refreshing place that sparks curiosity at each turn. Just don't expect to dwell long in a given area -- the pacing quickly forces you beyond each level's oddities.

Punching Pigs Can Be Fun

"Zeno Clash" takes a no-nonsense approach to its first-person fisticuffs. Aside from pummeling creatures with a mixture of short or powerful blows, you'll be able to block and parry with timed button taps. This pure point of design ensures that the visceral feedback of simply smashing foes remains the focal point.

Likewise, the guns and melee-objects (spears and clubs) are powerful, the short-range weapons designed to be impactful. They're scattered nature provide opportunities to change the pace of combat. Tired of punching? Shoot him in the face with a bow.

A Good Boss is Like A Good Best Friend

There are several boss encounters in the game, most of which are hulking brutes that require a club to kill. Others are more inspired, needing just the slightest bit of strategy and forethought. You'll find these battles at least slightly more interesting and involving, and even somewhat complex.

But if that doesn't do it, perhaps the gauntlet-style co-op modes will: the game's kill-until-you-drop (or complete) "Tower Challenge" and "Pit" modes make you reconsider approaches and tactics. The added perk of having a pal adds a layer of basic strategy. But don't expect too much -- the tiers are quick and easy to blow through. (Note: the netcode might be a less than stellar offering.)

The Lows

Spatial Awareness And You

At the end of the day, "Zeno Clash" is a one-on-one brawler. All of Ghat's moves, including the stun moves that allow for very basic grapples, aren't good for crowd control. But being surrounded happens too often as the five-hour game ramps up its difficulty.

The targeting system helps to maintain singular focus in a crowd, but it's of no use when someone is behind or to the side. For that matter, the game does a bad job of alerting you to your enemies’ presence until it's too late. To be clear: big fights are always manageable, but some can be rather unpleasant to deal with.

I'm Confused. Also, I've Seen You Before

The narrative's twisting and turning makes for some interesting viewing, but it also can be confusing, particularly when it comes to the game's auxiliary characters. Similarly, the circular nature of it makes you fight the same foes over and over again.

2 Fast, 2 Furious

The pacing of the game is breezy, leaving you little time to soak in (or explain) strange surroundings and creatures. While it's grand that it takes you to different places and puts you in numerous palette-cleansing situations, it's a bummer to not be able to take in the atmosphere of the game or have enough time to understand what is going on.

The Verdict

"Zeno Clash" is an interesting romp that doesn't let its peculiar art direction impede its core brawling mechanics. It's fun, interesting, and above all, a magnificently unique downloadable.