I never played the original Zeno Clash, so Zeno Clash II was my first exposure to the series. Knowing virtually nothing about the story, characters and controls, I opted to play through the the game’s tutorial/prologue before diving into the main campaign.
The option is actually labelled “Tutorial/Prologue” on the main menu, so what I expected was a short level that would show me the ins and outs of the game. Instead, what I got was my character and a few NPCs against a pitch black background. I would walk up to each NPC, and they would list combos for me to perform. While I performed these combos—all requiring a sequence of mouse button clicks in varying orders and combinations—they would talk at me, making references to the story of the original Zeno Clash, providing a very vague and abridged recap of sorts, alongside imagery.
What I could gather from the recap is that a giant bird-like character called FatherMother (that’s him above) kidnapped a bunch of children in the first Zeno Clash game, and made them believe that they were his kids. Eventually, he was caught by someone called the Golem, thrown into jail for his crimes, and most of the kidnapped kids returned to their parents. Among the few kids that don’t have families to go back to, opinions appear divided as to whether he belongs in jail or not. Your character, Ghat, happens to be somewhere in between—disapproving of the kidnapping children thing, but not quite ready to see FatherMother rotting behind bars either.
(As an aside, it appears as though FatherMother didn’t discriminate between different races of children. Some of his kids look human, while others were more fantastical, like the orc in the above screenshot.)
Zeno Clash II is a first-person brawler, which means you’ll be looking at your character’s fists a whole lot. Combat involves using both your fists to throw punches. The left mouse button controls the left fist, while the right button controls the right. The tutorial starts out by teaching you basic combos at first. Left click, left click, left click. Three punches from your left hand. Left click, right click, left click. Alternating punches. Simple stuff. In a matter of minutes, though, the tutorial combos turn devious. Left click, left click, right click, hold left click, left click. Now throw a few more of those in and see if you remember any of them in an actual combat situation that isn’t a tutorial and you’re surrounded by opponents.
Zeno Clash II overloads you with information within moments of having begun the game, and expects you to remember it all. By the time I was done with the tutorial, I remembered only the most basic of moves, and would often fall back on these to make my way through enemy encounters in the main story. I had my basic alternating punches. I had a handy Hammer Punch (left click + right click), a simple dodge move, and holding Spacebar to block. I didn’t feel the need to keep track of all the advanced moves the game tried to teach me, and if I died, I would simply reload at my last checkpoint and go through the battle again, usually managing to come out of it alive simply by fighting more cautiously and smartly.
Zeno Clash II attempts to give its combat a depth found in Devil May Cry and the Batman: Arkham games. Both those require you to press buttons in different combinations to pull combo strings off, but the difference is that they handle this concept with much more finesse. Batman is less about memorizing a dozen different combinations and more about the timing of your button presses. Meanwhile, in Devil May Cry, even the most basic combos look good and make you feel like you’ve achieved something. This, combined with the style metre, makes you want to get even better.
In Zeno Clash II, this isn’t the case. Combat doesn’t look stylish, enemies don’t learn to block repetitive combos, and your character isn’t particularly mobile either, which takes the fun out of fighting. You can’t jump, and there’s no real effective way to deal with multiple surrounding enemies, especially since you’re in first-person and can’t see what’s behind you. Oh, and you’ll find yourself surrounded a whole lot. This was the primary cause of my many deaths, and why I would normally succeed on my second try. Zeno Clash II requires that you lure enemies away from one another, and take them on one or two at a time, which can be easy to forget when you have a crowd of enemies trying to beat you to a pulp.
On my second attempt, I would always approach from the side, making sure to pick my targets carefully, then luring them out. Strategizing this way sounds like good fun in theory, but it starts to feel a little slow and tedious after you’ve gone through so many fights. The game does give you a kicking move that you can use on enemies sneaking up behind you, but then, they don’t always come from behind. Your AI companions aren’t much help either. At best, they’re good for socking an enemy so he turns toward them, leaving his rear open to you for a few seconds.
The world design in Zeno Clash II can be just as confusing as the combat. Areas are designed so that you can check different nooks and crannies for hidden items and skills, which is great, but the map system is uninformative and relays practically no detailed information about your surroundings. This can be rather annoying when you’re looking for something and having trouble finding it.
What is interesting is the story; particularly the game’s Golem character, who early on claims to want to bring law and order to a disorganized civilization that appears to have none. Learning more about him and his people was my main motivation for playing. Unfortunately, none of the characters on your party are nearly as interesting. Your character, Ghat, comes off as childish, while Rimat, your companion, seems equally childish and stubborn to boot. Rimat’s voice in particular sounds dull and unconvincing, and listening to her talk can be quite the exercise in frustration, much like a lot of Zeno Clash II.
Food for thought:
1. For a little while after having played Zeno Clash II, I was inclined to think that melee combat isn’t really possible in a first-person game. Then, I remembered that Mirror’s Edge handled it rather well, with the main difference being that Faith is far more athletic than Ghat is. Being able to jump and crouch makes a real difference.
2. Later items in the game do provide more effective ways of dealing with a crowd of enemies than singling one or two out at a time, but the game’s basic combat system appears to be designed primarily for 1-on-1 encounters.