If you break down what brawlers are, you essentially get kill rooms where you must defeat all opponents in order to progress to the next room. Zeno Clash isn't trying to re-invent the formula for brawlers; it's not trying to hide what type of game it is. It's a white knuckled brawler through and through, but is that enough to make this game great?
Zeno Clash pits you in the role of Ghat, the son of a hermaphrodite called Father-Mother who is the soul parent of the most powerful clan of people in the city of Halstedom. The story starts off in the middle of Ghat's adventure with him killing Father-Mother for reasons unknown to the player. It is a weird feeling, being put in control of a character whose true intentions is hidden from you at the beginning. As you fight your way into the story line the past is revealed in playable flashbacks all the way up to the moment you started playing, giving you the info you need to work out for yourself if Ghat actions where the right thing to do.
The story is told through in-game cut scenes, with some amazing detail using both animation and mise-en-scene to portray emotion and reactions. The voice actors do a great job getting into their characters (considering many, if not all, were voiced by the development team themselves - ed) with the only let down being the script. Some of the lines come off a little awkwardly, but certainly better compared to your typical JRPG localization foibles. Considering the ACE Team originates from Chile, these are small and forgivable details.
The playable segments in Zeno Clash are from the first person perspective. Given that brawlers are mostly played in a third person fixed-camera, there is so much more that the game needed to do to make the combat both fun and understandable. The key here was to make combat feel similar to how you would expect it to feel and to make it accessible to anyone. Using weight, animations and simple effects, the player is well aware if they do something wrong or something right in combat. For example, never blocking will result the player being beaten a shade of black and blue and the animations will reflect that. Swaying, stammering around and falling on your face are just some examples. This also works for your limited view of the entire arena — being hit from behind will have Ghat stammer forward rather than soaking it up like in most games, telling the player that there is an enemy behind him.
Making the combat varied enough to have the players both challenged and entertained throughout the game must have been one of the toughest design principles to stick by, but the Ace Team hit the nail on the head. Having players notice enemy types and attack them differently gives simple variation during combat. Each class of enemy has their own behavior and attacks. This means you have to approach each foe differently and being aware of the attack patterns for each type does help when things get hectic.
On top of your standard fisticuffs — light and heavy punch — you will have access to a few different types of weapons which can help you even the odds in battle. These include variations on melee, ranged and explosive attacks. Using any of the weapons in the game has you at a disadvantage in close combat, due to the fact you cannot lock on to enemies. Enemies will hide to avoid ranged attacks and rush you while you're reloading to knock the weapon from your hands. Anything Ghat drops is fair game for the enemy to pick up and use against you. The gratification you get from laying the smack down on a group of attackers who will use any means to win is amazing. This is a dirty brawler where anything goes: throw that baddie into that table, kick them when they are down and smash them with hammers, it's all fair game here. If you don't take advantage of something within the environment to turn the battle the AI will.
The concept works great, it's simple and it's easy to grasp, yet in later levels of Zeno Clash you will be forced to master the abilities to gain control over your enemies. If I had to compare the combat to anything else it would most definitely be Mirror's Edge. Both games have moments where players are overwhelmed yet due to effective use of melee combos and weapons you can overpower a large number of enemies. Not only that, having weapons in either game has you at a disadvantage in close quarters. Zeno Clashes system is much more rewarding, but if you have ever played Mirror's Edge you will have some idea of what to expect from the fights.
I've seen my fair share of original art directions based within the brush-based Source engine. Yet I've never seen one as focused and developed as the one in Zeno Clash. The most impressive visual element to the game by far is the vistas that the game boasts. I've never seen landscapes and skyboxes so alien yet familiar before. From purple skies filled with stars looking down upon a barren desert as far as the eye can see, to foggy swamps populated by dense thickets of tendril-like brush, the game showcase, if only briefly, many amazing locales. With the amount of work that went into them, I feel that its a shame the player could have been spent more time in some of these areas.
As the Ace Teams first game, Zeno Clash had some high expectations to meet the fervor generated by the developers in both press releases and trailers. Does Zeno Clash meet them? Personally, I think so as my interpretations of what was offered to the public before the release has only ever pointed to what Zeno Clash is — one hell of a brawler. So if you're up for a high quality, challenging melee experience Zeno Clash is a must buy.