Review: Zeno Clash 2 creates misery from the abstract

Zeno Clash 2 small

It does. Unfortunately, that’s only the start of its problems. The most fun I had in this game was kicking tiny blue crabs unnecessarily hard.

Wandering the realm of Zenozoik is a Dada-esque experience, where oddities wait around every turn and barbaric inhabitants put the word “mutant” to shame. The weird, strung-out music and first-person view affirm your awkwardness; as you stare at passersby, they gawk blankly back at you.

For siblings Ghat and Rimat, this is everyday life. Their first order of business after reuniting is to break their Father-Mother out of prison. Apparently, they only recently learned that this single androgynous crone didn’t give birth to them but instead kidnapped them and other children from the crib. That enlightening revelation came from the Golem, a stoic, gruff-voiced figure who has brought law and new ideas like “jail” to the city of Halstedom.

Zeno Clash 2 moth artist (photo credit: GameZone)

Most of Ghat and Rimat’s “brothers” and “sisters” have departed to find their real parents, who are mighty pissed at Father-Mother for stealing their infant sons and daughters from them years ago. The two protagonists seem to be the only ones who still feel Stockholm-level affection for the person that raised them. They loathe the Golem, one of a few power leaders in Zenozoik, for throwing Father-Mother behind bars and linking his own body to all of the Zenos. If the Golem feels pain, so do they; if he dies, they perish with him.

Underpinning that top and only layer of story is brittle and embarrassing voice acting and dialogue, which conceals as much depth as a tin can. Ghat’s sister, Rimat, looks like she stepped out of Mortal Kombat, which drives home the idea that this is a melee brawler with an open world. Fighting games of any kind have never hosted particularly strong narratives.

Exploring Zenozoik reveals a series of restrictive environments — more there to behold than to touch — which are downsized by fences around the perimeter, like the despised invisible walls of outdated game design. Most NPCs meander through the streets, but players can interact with only a set number of them, along with doors or items boxes (resembling big seashells). The latter typically stores health; restoratives for the special attack meter, which enables you to go berserk and launch rapid-fire punches; skull-bombs; and breakable and short-lived weapons like guns or staffs.

Even with its limitations, the scenery inspires the imagination. From a design standpoint, I admired how birds — tied to long ropes attached to ground posts — marked easily viewable exit points as they flew in small circles in the sky.

Zeno Clash 2 dandelions (photo credit: GameZone)

Sadly, glitches and other technical disasters mar the game’s beauty. Publisher Atlus noted that the reviewed PC build is most likely final (Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions are expected in May), so the overwhelming presence of bugs is worrisome. Now, I’m not a computer expert. It’s possible that my setup exacerbated these problems, but I experienced frequent crashes (some temporarily fixed by uninstalling and reinstalling the game), lagging (my PC can usually run Steam games just fine), an obscuring pink filter, total freezes, invisible enemies (thankfully, they couldn’t attack), flickering subtitles, stuck offensive controls, and more.

I spent more than my 13 hours of playtime trying to work around these issues.

Zeno Clash 2 is broken for a dozen other reasons as well. The ally system, which enables you to recruit and fight alongside story characters, proves a hindrance at best. These A.I. companions stray and disappear in the middle of combat, presumably because they’re healing. The game selectively chooses which encounters you can call them into, and they aren’t always the most threatening ones.

Because leadership is such an important and overstressed stat, players may miss out on many of these potential allies because they're underleveled. You need their help far more than you receive it. Early and often, you’ll want to dump as many skill points as possible into leadership by activating skill totems, which are found in secluded spots. Strength is the second-most valuable stat, followed by stamina and health.

Multiplayer might curb some of this difficulty, but the feature was unavailable to press reviewers.

Zeno Clash 2 combat

Combat leaves much to be desired. Moves and strategy change little throughout the game, and almost every scenario feels identical even though enemies boast both an eclectic set of fighting styles and physical appearances. The Sun-Moon Gauntlet and Golem Hand spice up gameplay a bit, but the second gadget is so unreliable and inaccurate that it ruins the few boss battles that require it, which are otherwise refreshing shake-ups on the norm.

At least the final boss is impossible to lose, no matter how long it takes you to finish.

The lock-on aiming frequently disables itself as you try to put distance between you and a single foe, which makes Ghat more vulnerable to blows from all sides. Trying to charge-attack an enemy can be nearly impossible without first targeting him, and relying on this feature to work turns combat into even more of a chore.

Zeno Clash 2 builds on a cool concept, but the game suffers from countless problems and is rarely compelling in any aspect of its design. My favorite moments happened when it dialed back the frenzy of combat and let me roam peacefully — when it had artistic visions to show me, like when I walked around a secret sanctum on an abandoned island. I wish Zeno Clash 2 focused more on creating a tangible world instead of one where gorgeous locales are reduced to hollow stages for fights.

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