Thank god for the internet. If it weren't for this tube attached to my computer I would have walked right past Zeno Clash. Steve Gaynor stopped me in my tracks with his admiring essay. The RPS guys rang in with their praises. Finally, Matthew Gallant tossed in an enthusiastic Twitter salute, and I knew I needed to give Zeno Clash a closer look. I owe you one, guys.
Zeno Clash is a game of astonishing vision. It bears the signature of game design artists who know exactly what they wish to communicate. It's the rare game that conveys a singular (and wonderfully peculiar) aesthetic universe and then unifies its distinctive elements – thematic, visual, narrative, character, gameplay – into a game experience that plays and feels different. We keep saying to developers, give us something new. Zeno Clash is that game.
Zeno Clash is set in the land of Zenozoik, a name clearly inspired by the Cenozoic Era that saw the demise of the dinosaurs, the continents shifting to their current positions, and the appearance of mammals both strange and familiar, including mastodons, saber-toothed cats, whales, and primates.
Anything is possible in such a world, including hermaphrodite bird-people and parachuting squirrels. Zeno Clash's Chilean team of indie developers turn “strange and familiar” into a design motif, rendering a world that's a bizarre amalgam of prehistoric, fantasy, punk, and Salvador Dali.
But it's an inspired and coherent lunacy. Everything curves in Zenozoik, as if straight lines are an offense to organic nature. All the characters, even the most strange, seem to belong in this sometimes fetid, sometimes alluring world. As art direction goes, Zeno Clash is a triumph of maximizing limited assets, proving there's plenty of vibrant life in Valve's aging Source engine.
Unique environments and character designs are welcome features, but what most distinguishes Zeno Clash is the moral and spiritual universe it establishes via its storytelling. The game's hero is aptly named Ghat. 'Ghat' is a Bengali or Hindu term for the steps leading down to water, most specifically to the Ganges. Ghats are the conduits for ritual cleansing and ablution. They are the means for people to reach the healing place. Ghat doesn't fully understand his purpose in the story, but the mysterious Golem (another carefully chosen character name) seems to see Ghat's role as very much like those river steps.
Zeno Clash presents a world free of moral judgments. Ghat's main task is to wake up. His teacher, Metamoq, asks him at several points what he has learned. Metamoq's philosophy is simple: "If you are satisfied and do what you feel you must do, no matter what that is, then you have reached perfection."
Ultimately, Ghat must locate Father-Mother (trying to avoid spoilers here), but the game clearly suggests that he's not actively seeking or being driven by anything. “It's funny you decided to follow me, Deadra, because I wasn't going anywhere.”
Among the most prominent characters are the Corwids. They sometimes harm people or behave self-destructively, but in the universe of Zeno Clash, they simply are what they are, with no judgment attached. Ghat describes them:
Ghat: “He has his mind set on head-butting things, and nothing will change his mind about that.”
Deadra: “Why would he do that?”
Ghat: “Why not? The Corwids are not slaves of reality, so they can be insane."
Ghat: “Erminia peed on herself and starved to death anonymously, and that is what Erminia did. Because Corwids are not slaves of their needs, of eating or sleeping. There was also Gabel. Gabel ate people, and that is just what he had to do. The Corwids are not slaves to morality or common sense. So if I were like Animasta I would have let Gabel eat me. But I didn't feel I had to be eaten.”
Zeno Clash is much more than a kooky looking brawler. It is an attempt to redefine the core narrative universe that nearly every modern game with a story defaults to. It presents an alternative mythic landscape that colors everything you do in the game, including the brutal hand-to-hand fighting. Brutality means something in this game, and in a sense it also means nothing.
Zeno Clash re-imagines the art of games in ways I find meaningful and exciting, but I have a feeling it won't be everyone's cup of tea. It's an exceptionally fine brawler, but not a very good shooter; it's too difficult at the default setting; it begs for gamepad controls; some enemies reappear too often; and it lacks a proper ending. The voice acting is pretty awful too. And, yes, and the whole thing is sort of out-there.
But if you've ever complained about the copycat sameness of games, Zeno Clash may remind you just how vital, imaginative and audacious these interactive toys can be.