Back in 2009, Zeno Clash became quite popular with its mix of first-person fighting gameplay and a unique art design that made people cringe. The characters were unlike anything we had seen at the time, and while some looked human enough, there were others that looked to be pulled from a Dali painting or the creation of a darkly artistic five year old. Bird creature that looks human? Check. Man with a melting face? Sure. Transgender bird creature that looks about 10 feet tall and has the most haunting voice in video games? You betcha! Zeno Clash II certainly has all of these things, and more, but the fighting feels strange at times and the characters fail to keep interest through the game.
The two standout features of Zeno Clash II are, much like the first game, its art style and its fighting mechanics. Few games try to make first-person fighting the core mechanic but Zeno Clash made it seem possible in the original game. Whether using the mouse to punch or a gamepad the punches correlate to the left and right buttons, or triggers, with blocking being controlled by a separate button and power moves being used via button holding. For instance; left trigger, right trigger, left trigger, hold left will unleash a flurry of punches that end with a powerful hook. This hook might daze an opponent allowing you to walk up and grab them and finish them off with some knees or the devastating piledriver. At first the fighting feels doable as small groups are manageable and blocking isn’t completely needed. However, when the game is throwing five or six enemies at you it can feel overwhelming, even with an ally or two.
When you’re taking on that many enemies it’s inevitable that one or two will find their way behind you. Zeno Clash II introduces a smart ability that allows you to press both attack buttons, when alerted to do so, and perform a spin attack to ward off would-be attackers from behind. The grappling ability is new as well but after the first or second piledriver it becomes too hazardous to try and grapple as it leaves you open for an attack. It’s the myriad of things relating to combat that really brought the experience of Zeno Clash II down. One of the biggest issues with Zeno Clash II‘s combat is the delayed feeling of it all and the sense that sometimes you’re not hitting a target that seems to be right in front of you. There are definitely times where enemies dodge attacks but other times I felt as though I was swinging and hitting nothing, even though the enemy was no further away than in the next second where I’d connect. These odd hits and misses really took away from the feeling of tight fighting that Zeno Clash originally gave off. Group fights are also a source of frustration as they can go one of two ways; either you have an ally and fight strategically to win or you are solo and stand no chance.
Allies in Zeno Clash II can make or break battles as their presence takes the aggression off of you from a few foes. Too many times I went into a battle with allies, these are typically the more important fights with many enemies, and minutes later had to fight another large group solo because allies take time to heal up. This downtime leads to fights where the odds are too much to compete with and it becomes easier to just die and start again with your allies healed up. There’s no good reason for this odd downtime and from a design perspective it’s just a waste of time. If the main character can fight 24/7, why can’t his pals?
As you fight your way through hordes of enemies you’ll have the chance to gain new and more interesting allies that lend themselves fairly well in combat. Allies are recruited through a leadership stat that can be leveled up along with strength, health, and stamina. How does one acquire these stat increases? Well…I’m not entirely sure. You see, Zeno Clash II is a bit ambiguous about certain things. There’s a great little tutorial that covers the back story of the first game and helps newcomers and veterans alike get into the flow of the combat. As for everything else, the game has a “figure it out” mentality for that. New items that are acquired, there are four total, have different abilities that are shown in context but never fully explained. Instead I found myself experimenting with them until I figured it out. This isn’t a bad quality, it just feels very old-school. Where it becomes frustrating is when I can’t figure out how I level up or what I’m doing wrong during certain fights. Replaying the same bit over and over only to succeed and not know what I did differently is just not fun in my book.
Zeno Clash II’s other draw, for many, comes from its strange and outlandish world that surrounds the gameplay. Characters that stand still for years to gain the trust of trees, elephant men who talk and golems with futuristic technology all roam the world of Zeno Clash II and make for a truly unique experience. Character voices are often strange, and sometimes inaudible, and when they are able to be heard they sound flat or dull. Your partner through the game, Rimat, is especially flat and hard to listen to throughout the game. It sounds like she doesn’t care she exists most of the time and that’s only slightly better than the grumbles and squawks that account for the other voice work. The world of Zeno Clash II is certainly different but that doesn’t always mean good. Where the world shines is in its dark, twisted beauty and strange design, but it falls flat in terms of character and life-like qualities.
Zeno Clash II also sees the world of Zenozoik opened up quite a bit in comparison to the first game. There are more areas to explore and some new enemies to take on, and while you can traverse the world quite a bit it’s not quite open world. Each zone is self-contained and rather small. Once you reach the end of a zone there’ll be a small stone landing that will take you into the next zone and so on and so forth. The one shining quality is that each zone feels unique and most of the zones are artistically gorgeous. The wrath bird field in particular felt sprawling and just awesome to see for the first time. Sadly, after a fight or two you’re on to the next zone and the moment has passed. There’s co-op as well in which the second player can play as Rimat but that does little to spice up the game.
Zeno Clash II has that unique quality about its world and combat that the first game possessed but it’s polish that is sorely lacking from the overall package. The characters are beyond bizarre and the world has a twisted feel to it all. Problems with overwhelming combat scenarios and strange design choices bring the experience down from a crazy-weird game to a flawed could’ve-been game. There is definitely a potential to Zeno Clash II and for those that loved the first game’s unique qualities I urge you to play the second game as it fleshes out some of the dangling story elements. However, if the first game just warranted a shrug from you or if weird games aren’t your thing, I doubt Zeno Clash II will really change your mind.