Everywhere I looked in Zeno Clash II, I found something to make me curious to know what the art designers at ACE Team were smoking when they came up with it (but perfectly content to not try any myself). Like the first Zeno Clash, it’s a wildly creative, borderline-disturbing world filled with equally bizarre and diverse creatures to punch in the face using a satisfying but repetitive first-person combat system. It’s a good thing that stuff still works as well as in the surprising original, but the attempts at going bigger for the sequel largely end up as confused missteps.
Despite a change of game engines, Zeno Clash II doesn’t look noticeably better than its 2009 predecessor, but of course that’s plenty good enough to create a slew of mystifyingly strange creatures: a race that looks like giant tongues with limbs, horned wookiees, the freakish Foot Collector dwarf, clockwork zombies, and stocky elephant men, just to name a few. Watching those creatures in action is worth seeing, even if the experience of fighting all but the biggest and smallest of them is disappointingly familiar – I’d have expected this freak show to come at me with a wider selection of attacks.
Zeno Clash II’s fisticuffs are a refreshing change from the typical first-person game’s simplistic one-button melee systems, and powered-up punches deliver satisfying smacks that send enemies flying. Combat could use more depth, though; getting the pace of the clicks for combos takes a little practice. Once I learned the rhythm, it was a little too easy to fall into a pattern of reusing the same moves over and over again, since enemies never learn to block a frequently used attack. And considering how rare guns are, I wish they had more stopping power – a bludgeoning weapon is usually much more effective.
I got a lot of use out of one of the new special weapons, a trinket which links two enemies together and duplicates damage inflicted on one to the other. The other one, a gauntlet that harnesses the energy of the sun or moon, is an extremely clever idea that just doesn’t work in practice. I love taking a moment to find the sun or moon in the sky and position myself so that the enemy is between me and the heavenly body, but hate that I have to look at the sky to actually trigger the device’s explosive attack because I can’t see what I’m trying to kill.
Combat is rarely too hard, but some strange balancing issues pop up in the aftermath. There’s nowhere near enough health pickups to let you recover from taking even a few hits in every fight, but dying restarts you nearby with completely full health and a fully recharged stable of summonable allies. I felt strangely incentivized to die, and that’s something a game should pretty much never do (martyrdom excluded).
Summoning those characters to fight alongside you is useful, but pretty much only as far as keeping a few enemies busy for you. Allies are too unreliable and uncontrollable to be of any tactical use in a fight. Even though there are a wide variety of characters to recruit, none of them felt like a particularly effective fighter, and thus spending skill points in the leadership skill didn’t feel like it gave me much return on my investment.
Speaking of the light RPG upgrade system, it’s strange that earning points is based on exploring and finding hidden totems rather than fighting. That wouldn’t be bad except that the map system is poor. A very basic map screen shows how the freely roamable regions connect, but there’s no way to zoom in to navigate the maze-like city or canyon, and the minimap only shows blips for nearby enemies. Not even being able to tell where I’d already been made hunting for the collectibles less appealing
At least the variety of the fantastical landscapes makes touring each one interesting. There are Dr. Seuss-like fields with trees that blow bubbles, canyons, a dark netherworld – and most are made moodier by a dynamic day/night cycle and excellent music. But why is there a giant, robotic white-gloved hand endlessly squeezing what appears to be a mucus-filled stress ball sticking out of that canyon wall? “Why” isn’t something you should ask a lot in Zeno Clash II, because very little will be explained.
Appropriately, the accompanying story is nearly as nonsensical as its characters, and would be a pretty terrible way to jump into this universe as a starting point. In the context of having played the first game, main character Ghat seems childlike in his rejection of the authority that he himself helped put in place, but that naivety is kind of the point. I can’t say I thought it was a particularly good story, but it’s intriguing enough that I was interested to see where they went with this. Roughly 10 hours later, the final battle succeeded in making me feel like I’d played a supporting role in a clash of titans, and that was reward enough.
Ghat’s voice performance is actually pretty good, and many of the screeching and grunting monster-people – most notably the birdlike ones – have a lot of character, if not nuanced performances. That makes the voice actor playing Rimat, Ghat’s “sister” and co-op partner, stand out as really distractingly awful. I wished she’d stop talking, yet even when playing in single-player, she’d show up in the cutscenes to prove she hadn’t taken any acting lessons during her absence.
At least she’s mostly mute during gameplay for the basic-as-can-be two-player co-op. Invite a Steam friend into your game and you’re playing Zeno Clash II with another player in there, and that’s about it. There’s no real way to work together beyond “you punch that guy and I’ll punch this guy,” so the experience is pretty much the same except for the constant companionship. Oh, and it’s easy to accidentally skip levels in your single-player game by joining a game that’s further along than yours.
All of these attempts at new features layered on top of Zeno Clash’s intriguingly attractive foundations seem like they’ve got a ways to go before they’re consistent enough to pull their own weight – I’d rather have had a few more polished ideas than twice as many half-baked ones. I still definitely recommend a trip to Zeno Clash II’s world, but more for the insane atmosphere than for memorable gameplay.
If Zeno Clash is a borderline psychedelic trip, Zeno Clash II is a flashback to that same delightfully bizarre world. What worked in 2009′s original first-person brawler works here as well, but inadequate maps, strange combat balancing, and several other quirks make it hard to call the sequel a substantial improvement beyond its new areas and creatures.