Steve Jobs once said that a lot of his life’s most important decisions were enabled because of his acid dropping days in his youth. According to him, LSD expanded the scope of his mind and freed it, the psychedelic drug letting him see possibilities that he wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.
Now, most people would (ostensibly, at least) not be as willing to experiment with the drug to see if he was right, but it looks like we have a good substitute. Zeno Clash II, the unlikely sequel to the original Zeno Clash, is a bizarre, absurd, psychedelic experience, mesmerizing and hypnotic in its absolute lack of sense, frustrating and yet charmingly satisfying in its absolute incongruity.
For those not in the know, the original Zeno Clash, released way back in 2009, was an experimental first person brawler, which had a rather personal take on storytelling, and a very unique way to tell it. The original game was charming and wonderful for what it was, but a lot of its appeal came from the fact that there was nothing else on the market that was like it. Zeno Clash II definitely loses that, as in terms of its gameplay, as well as its storytelling style, it channels the original game.
However, where it differs from the original game is in the scope of the story. Where the original game was a rather personal story told about one family, and the messy politics that plagued it, the new game seems to be much less ambitious and daring, and seems to fall prey to mainstream expectations, having a story about saving the world from a Golem.
Fans of the original probably groaned upon reading that last sentence; and while some trepidation is doubtless justified, on the whole, it should come as a relief to them that all the confusion and absurdity that pervaded the original game is gleefully maintained and embraced in the sequel (often to its detriment).
The game begins in a state of full confusion, recalling the beginning of the original game, and things do not get better from there. For instance, you are saving the world from a Golem, but why are you doing that? The Golem seems to want to restore some semblance of order to the world; and yet, the game somehow tries to justify defeating it, and it even makes sense in a perverse sort of way while you are playing it. It is only after you are done with it that you realize how utterly over the top it really is.
In that sense, it’s like listening to the ramblings of someone who is high. It’s a wonderful experience, playing through the game and listening to what it has to say, just as long as you don’t actually have to explain it to someone else. Or try and sell them on the game.
Zeno Clash II does make a few missteps with its storytelling, though. Possibly in an attempt to be true to the original game’s spirit, it chooses to focus on Ghat, the protagonist, and his odyssey, over the world and his actual quest. But this has two unintended side effects that greatly work against the game- the first is that the scope of the world, which the game hints at, feels automatically limited, half baked, and ultimately not realized to the fullest.
This would not be a problem if it had never hinted at it in the first place, but since the game goes for an ‘epic’ story, you automatically expect a world that is equally epic. Instead, you get a painfully narrow view of the world, and everything in it. It’s probably what it would be like if all of The Lord of the Rings had been told from Pippin’s perspective.
The second problem is with the actual characterization. As mentioned above, the game chooses to focus on Ghat, and that’s all well and good, but it does create problems considering the cast ensemble of characters the story stars. All of them come and go, but because they are introduced and whisked away at the game’s own pace, you never get the chance to develop any sort of connection to them, and ultimately, they never develop into anything beyond just abstractions. I guess this is in keeping with the psychedelic storytelling, but it does hurt the overall tale.
As far as the actual gameplay goes, Zeno Clash II does it well, like its predecessor. The actual combat is first person melee, and it includes punches and kicks, and elbowing your opponent, grabbing them and throwing them. The combat feels immensely satisfying, and the controls have weight. The combos feel satisfying to pull off, and overall, the combat just feels fun. Yeah, it’s a bit too simple to carry a game of this length all by itself, and it begins to degenerate by the end, but on the whole, it gets top marks.
The problem arises when you have to fight too many people, which happens all too often for comfort. At that time, the game is just a tour de force in anarchy, and not the good kind either. This, along with the poor world design, and some bugs, do mar the experience quite a bit, but on the whole, simply because of how unique the game is, it is still fully recommended.
It’s not exactly the best game, and its merits are mostly predicated on the fact that there isn’t quite anything else like it on the market, but it works, and it works well enough for everyone to at least take more than a passing glance at it. Not everyone will like it, but those that do will find a lot to love in it.
This game was reviewed on PC.