Clash: Artifacts of Chaos
released on Mar 09, 2023
You are Pseudo, a powerful warrior living as a recluse in the strange land of Zenozoik. When you become embroiled in a quest for the Artifacts of Chaos, everything changes. Explore the world and defeat your enemies, but never forget the sacred rules of the Ritual.
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The following is a transcript of a video review which can be found here: https://youtu.be/BCH3jbQyIiM
“Anarchism” is an unfortunate word. While it was initially used to describe a political movement seeking to abolish a hierarchical government and encourage a more cooperative arrangement for society as a whole, the word “anarchy” was derailed into becoming synonymous with words like “mayhem”, “lawlessness”, and “chaos”. Because of this, it’s difficult to imagine a world where an anarchist arrangement of society is anything but a dystopia, and yet Ace Team have been doing their best to truly explore the idea within the video game medium. Since their first released game back in 2009, Ace Team have been examining the concept of a fully anarchist society, how it would work, who would live in it, and how other hierarchical societies would interact with it. In this effort, Ace Team have created three games set within their fictional anarchist world. The first Zeno Clash game details a member of Zenozoik society struggling with a moral challenge. With no concept of crime and legal processes, Ghat has to make judgments based on his personal morality and desires, a decision resulting in his family disowning him and chasing him out of their home. In the sequel, a foreign power has come to Zenozoik to forcefully establish laws, encouraging the people to become admissible in the lands beyond Zenozoik at the cost of their unbroken freedom. Ghat understands these laws as little more than a means to ensnare him and his family, so he fights them all the way beyond the end of the world. The Zenozoik shown in the first two Zeno Clash games is a violent place. The people are all members of gangs, they’re technologically stunted, and they’re easily manipulated, but despite all of that, nobody starves - unless they choose to. This setting is tremendously rich and Ace Team could make games set in Zenozoik for as long as they have stories to tell. Clash: Artifacts of Chaos, the next game in the series, takes the player to an older Zenozoik, before Golem’s intervention, before Haldestom, back to the days when the old hegemonies ruled via their one law.
Unlike its predecessors, Clash: Artifacts of Chaos is a third person action game that follows the adventure of Pseudo, a hermit who has the inexplicable power to awaken as a skeleton in the night in order to revive his dead, fleshy body. Pseudo finds himself called to a nearby altercation when he hears a song in the wind. An elderly man and his grandson are being harassed by another person who insists the elder must fight him. The player then gets the opportunity to play the one law’s dice game before completing the fight part of the ritual as the elder. No matter how hard you beat this guy’s ass, I don’t think Grandpa’s attacks actually do any damage. Despite his efforts, the elder is unable to defeat Bhlag, and ultimately ends up being killed during the fight. Typically, murder isn’t accepted by the people of Zenozoik, and since Pseudo witnesses the fight, Bhlag quickly challenges him to try and cover up what he had done. Without dice, Pseudo loses the ritual game by default and must accept the penalty without retaliation. What follows is the player’s first proper experience with the game’s combat. The camera is positioned just above Pseudo’s right shoulder, giving the player a good view of the enemy in front of him, but not obscuring their peripheral vision with a first person perspective. Not all of Pseudo’s attacks will cause enemies to flinch, so the player will be punished for mindlessly mashing attacks, demonstrating to the player the thing they are told in the tutorial, that Pseudo is not the strongest and will have to take advantage of his superior speed. The player does this by dodging around their opponents and keeping mobile during a fight. At the conclusion of this fight, Pseudo and the Boy try to establish a plan going forward. Who will care for the Boy, and how will he get to wherever the carers are? Pseudo suggests waiting at a nearby fortress in hopes of catching a messenger going toward the Boy’s old home. The Boy then loots the dice and ritual belt from his dead grandfather before the two begin their journey to the fortress. When they make it to Gemini's palace, they’re invited inside to meet her. As it happens, the Boy also has magical powers; he’s able to transfer lifeforce from one living thing to another, though strangely he views this as a curse. Gemini plans to use this power to expand her rule throughout Zenozoik, but the reasons for why she would want to do this are fairly vague. It isn’t like she’s collecting taxes or anything. Sensing that the Boy isn’t safe in Gemini’s possession, and prepared to face the coming bounty-hunters, Pseudo commits to taking the Boy to his old home himself and the two set out across Zenozoik.
I’ve seen this game described as “soulslike” a few times now, and there’s definitely some merit to that claim, though you might have to squint a bit to see it. There’s a single combat difficulty that can be quite the challenge before the player properly gets to grips with the combat system. That combat system includes a dodge mechanic, there are campfires at which the player saves and heals, and may also brew a health drink to consume in combat. That health drink doesn’t activate until the animation associated with it completes, meaning that the player has to find opportune times to heal. The world is explored in loops, paths leading away from save points tend to loop back and give the player the chance to open shortcuts to previous hub areas. The combat is quite fast-paced and has a very effective quantity of audio and visual feedback. Pseudo’s attacks are snappy and cancelling between standard attacks, special moves, and dodge attacks feels like inputting combos in a fighting game. In the lower left of the screen is a bar that fills whenever Pseudo lands a hit on an enemy. When the bar is full, the player can engage a brief first-person mode which ends in an extremely powerful attack that is unfortunately a bit buggy. There are a lot of different fighting styles and options within the combat when in motion which is highly impressive and I enjoyed it a lot, but there are aspects that I think are undercooked and things that people who’ve played the game all the way through probably aren’t familiar with. Firstly, this game has a blocking mechanic. Blocking occurs passively, though, which is just baffling to me. In order to block an attack the player needs Pseudo to stand perfectly still and tank an enemy’s attack to the face. Who would ever do this? They can’t be moving, or dodging, or attacking, which is totally antithetical to what a normal player would do when presented with danger. And Pseudo still takes damage whenever he successfully blocks an attack. The parry system acts in much the same way, although there’s at least a timing challenge involved in parrying. Secondly, there’s a stamina mechanic in this game, though it doesn’t slow Pseudo down or stop him from relentlessly attacking which is appreciated. What it does is increase the damage Pseudo takes and reduces the amount of invulnerability frames on dodges, which isn’t conveyed well at all. For a while I thought enemy attacks were able to deal a random range of damage, when one moment I was surviving one attack, and then the next that same attack would kill me outright. But no, Pseudo just gets tired and takes more damage. I think all this pushes the gameplay toward a style that keeps the player out of danger at all times, which I didn’t find to be the most fun strategy, just the most effective. I often found myself using the dash attack, then cancelling that into a special move, then a dodge attack, and finally disengaging so that I might start the sequence over again. All of these attacks cause the enemies to flinch, so I was never in danger from the enemy I was hitting directly.
Actually, that’s a good way of transitioning into talking about the game’s level of challenge. I’m by no means an elite ultra mega gamer, but I can hang, and for the first half of the game or so it took me at least two attempts to beat a fight. I was trying to engage with the game on its terms which took me a few hours to unlearn. Again, taking increased damage from having low stamina was not well communicated, so I found I’d be relentlessly attacking enemies until they’d suddenly kill me. Eventually, though, once I learned the combat system, the game ran out of challenges. Once I was familiar with Wrehgg’s attacks, I beat him every time. The Outcast and his giant friend weren’t an issue either. The same crew of regular citizenry and members of the Director’s cult hunt the player all throughout Zenozoik, and while each new enemy has their own fighting style, their repeated appearances make them less interesting. This is additionally true when that citizenry is also reused as spectres in the night. At about 14 hours in length, the game is definitely spreading its content a bit thin, but I don’t fully subscribe to this idea. Naturally, games like this are going to have a lot of encounters against enemies the player has already overcome. The player gets to express their skill against an enemy that might have been troublesome before, and Ace Team gets some more use out of the complex enemies they’ve designed. But man, Bhlag just won’t stay down. The handful of boss fights are really cool though, mainly due to how fascinating all of the designs of the enemies are, but sometimes the fight’s mechanics are visually spectacular.
I think it goes without saying, but this game is gorgeous. The art direction and technical artistry are phenomenal, and I almost can’t believe a team as small as Ace Team managed to produce something this beautiful. The shapes, the colours, the shading, even the little scratchy marks, it all oozes style and artistic vision. The world is stuffed with life and character, even the wild areas where it wouldn’t be unreasonable to have a normal forest. And the people living in Zenozoik are wonderful. I love Pseudo’s design, his permanently furrowed brow perfectly encapsulates his grouchy attitude, and the checkerboard designs tattooed onto him show that while he is a hermit who dislikes interacting with other people, he is still very much subject to their one law. The Tchaks tend to have this red and white colouration on their tops in order to denote effectiveness, which is shared with some of Pseudo’s tattoos as well as the Boy’s clothes. The ritual dice game is quite plain in comparison to the rest of the game, though. The dice are thrown onto a skin placed over the grass, and while the skin looks great, I’d much rather be looking up instead. Just look at the sunset. And the stars in the night. Magical. The plant-life is similarly magical, when it isn’t trying to kill you, and the presence of non-Rath bird animals is very welcome. Mostly. This cat guy thing is a tremendous design but I absolutely hate it. Great job. The combat animations have great weight to them, and the variety is astonishing too, not just on Pseudo’s end. The way this enemy pirouettes whenever she throws her boomerang attack, or how this guy can’t actually see so he’s fumbling around searching for the player with his hand. I’m sure I could gush about this game’s presentation all day, but I think just looking at it does more than I can express.
Now, a beautifully presented world does little for a game if the thing is a nightmare to traverse and lacks interesting things to do. Fortunately, these visuals aren’t going to waste. Zenozoik’s geography has yet to be ground down to the rolling hills common in Zeno Clash 2’s rendition, instead the world is craggy and rocky, with a lot of vertical layers stacked on top of each other. Exploration often involves a lot of climbing and hopping over gaps in the path, circling around prominent terrain features, and then knocking down the same suspiciously placed stone block to create a path back to the campsite. The mountain region has a greater focus on higher climbs, while the coastal swamp features smaller ledges followed quickly by returning back down to the base level. There are small settlements all over the place, though they’re mostly empty aside from the two vendors who set up shops within. I don’t know whether the abandonment of all of the villages is because everyone is hunting Pseudo and the Boy, but maybe. It’s quite astounding just how many homes have been modelled and placed in the world, filled with trinkets and references for long-time fans to get, places where the residents might farm their food, and then nobody’s there. There’s also only a handful of Corwids in the whole game! They still live in the woods, but there’s much more structure out here than there used to be (or will be), and Haldestom seems to be actively trying to keep the Corwids away which is something I had expected to be present before. Also, the living statues return, due to popular demand, I suppose. I quite like the ancient fortress, though. The way it all tightly weaves around itself, with enemies suddenly appearing from their hiding places was a welcome change from the normal way lesser enemies are handled. Not that they’re bad, just that all the buff aardvarks in the game are pretty easy to beat and they’re surprisingly common. And since there are so many potion ingredients to collect, I did find myself fighting every single aardvark and pterodactyl I came across. Some of the routes that circle back to previous areas do seem a bit contrived, and while the design of the structure is impressive, I don’t think Corwids would really bother with building a one to one scale replica of Blight Town. Especially when Pseudo’s just living in a tent.
The player is first introduced to Pseudo in his skeletal form. Somewhat reminiscent of the opening of the first Zeno Clash game, Artifacts of Chaos begins in a dream realm while a mysterious person with a gruff voice delivers the combat tutorial. The voice then instructs Pseudo to wake up, though the world he awakens into is likely not what the player expected. Pseudo is still a skeleton, wandering in the night. There are other skeletons en route to where Pseudo’s flesh lies. He had been crushed by a log and his body lies face down on the ground amidst his current campsite. But with the skeleton’s help, the log is removed and Pseudo can truly wake up. Pseudo sees a former body point south-east, though what we are to glean from this I’m unsure. And this is how the player meets their protagonist, crushed and alone, fortunate that his ability to reanimate as a skeleton kept him from staying dead. As the player explores this first area, they’re likely to walk into a trigger which causes Pseudo to stop and wonder where music is coming from. As the player approaches the source, they’re shown the battle between Bhlag and the Boy’s Grandpa, and then Pseudo intervenes. Intent on returning to his life of solitude, Pseudo wants to leave the Boy in someone else’s care as soon as he can. When shown his original plan to offload the Boy onto a messenger wouldn’t work, Pseudo quickly decides that he will make the journey himself. There’s very little conflict in Pseudo’s thoughts: that option won’t work, he will have to find another way. When Pseudo and the Boy finally make it to the Boy’s brother, and Pseudo again learns that he cannot offload the Boy here, his immediate reaction is to find the next place. Though his original motivation may have been to get back to normality as soon as he could, Pseudo’s sense of responsibility is the strongest characterisation he has. It makes him very likeable, despite his grouchy outer appearance. And when everyone starts hunting him, and with no idea who should care for the Boy, Pseudo heads north to speak to someone he wants very little to do with. His former master might know what to do. But when that attempt also fails, I think players are supposed to get the sense that Pseudo makes the decision to care for the Boy himself. Instead of running around Zenozoik looking for a suitable guardian, the plan changes to collecting shield artefacts in order to defeat Gemini and call off the hunt. There’s even a distressing scene where a machine Pseudo comes across starts emitting sounds that cause all birds throughout Zenozoik to lose their balance. The Boy, being kind of a bird, is affected by this, and Pseudo must make the run north to hopefully destroy the machine to save the Boy from the pain. This kind of emotional run across Zenozoik isn’t unique to this one instance, though, but that second occurrence is something we’ll get into once those sensitive to spoilers are gone.
Which is why I’ll put the marker here. If you intend to play the game and don’t want it spoiled, you’d better skip to the timestamp.
We’ve pretty much covered the bulk of the narrative excluding the big finale and the details of the shield artefact hunt, so I won’t go over it all again in this section. Instead, I want to discuss some metaphorical readings of the story as well as address some comments on my previous Zeno Clash videos. In a past life, I went to university to study writing. While I was attending classes, I was enrolled in a subject called “Creative Reading”. It sounds really stupid, but the professor knew exactly what he was doing, and it was probably the best class I’ve ever taken. One of the biggest takeaways I got was the idea that nothing a writer ever includes is truly random. The blue curtains might “just be blue” to the writer, but they’re not telling the truth, they specified that information for a particular, maybe even unconscious reason. With this in mind, I’ve been thinking that Artifacts of Chaos is about impending fatherhood, and the journey an expectant father would be going through before finally accepting their new role in life. This interpretation makes the ending hurt even more, as Pseudo is finally ready to accept his new life with the Boy before he is ripped away, hopefully taken to serve some greater purpose. Of course, this is just my interpretation, and unfortunately it ignores the game’s exploration of anarchism and the presence of “the one law” which I don’t think plays much of a role in Artifacts of Chaos anyway. Compared to previous titles in this series, Zenozoik’s anarchic society isn’t given very much attention. Ghat expends a lot of energy fleeing from Haldestom after attacking Father-Mother in Zeno Clash, and he’s just as active in his attempts to find a way to free the city from the oppressive regime that has taken over in the sequel. Pseudo plays by the one law all throughout Artifacts of Chaos, until the very end when he declares the law unjust. I don’t dislike this direction for the series, to put more focus on the other people who live within Zenozoik, rather than just Ghat’s conflicts with the morality of law, but I am left feeling underwhelmed by Artifacts of Chaos’ narrative as a result. At least not to the same degree as Zeno Clash 2, though. Artifacts of Chaos feels kind of narrow in that way, at least that’s my interpretation of it. Which is also something that was commented on in my previous video on this series. I didn’t see the parallels between the prison Father-Mother was thrown into and Zenozoik itself being deliberately isolated. How Golem had basically created a miniature version of his own duty and handed it over to his Enforcers. A user named Munsonroe left a really excellent comment on their understanding of the first two games, and while I think their own life experience has coloured their reading a bit, it’s very well reasoned and I think a great example of why I’m still in the YouTube game. Tell me your ideas, help me to broaden my perspective, it’s not always bad to allow others to influence your reading of something.
As the game approaches the climax, with the player embarking on their quest to collect all of the great shield artefacts, they come across a guy who had once been Gemini’s right hand. Circumstances changed, however, and they were forced to exile themself, though they didn’t go far. The Outcast had taken up residence in a cave on the coast, beyond the swamp where the people of Zenozoik rarely venture. After the player defeats the Outcast, they explain that they cannot hand over the shield artefact. In a fit of rage, the Outcast had tossed the trinket into the mouth of a nearby sleeping whale. So, Pseudo and the Boy go to meet the whale and see if they can get the shield artefact from them. Word is an ancient being, so old that a tree seems to have sprouted from their face and someone has carved one of the rocks that they have stacked atop their head. Word remembers everything, they are empowered that way, much like the Boy’s life force exchanging power. And, as many ancient beings do in fiction, Word has been using their immense memory to think about the state of things and how the future might shape up. Word explains that Zenozoik has been a prison for a very long time, and I have to mention that whoever was directing the voice actors should’ve been super picky about pronunciation. “Zeno-zoh-ik”. But anyway, Word critiques the law, and the artefacts. The one law binds Zenozoik while the outside world drowns in their many laws. The artefacts are components of the magic circle the Zenos abide by, they aren’t truly useful outside of the one law. Nobody can hunt or grow food with an artefact, much like nobody could hunt with a wallet full of cash. It’s definitely profound in some ways, but Word’s presence in the story is only to deliver this monologue, which is little more than the writer directly inserting their notes into the story. As much as I might find the ideas agreeable, the way they’ve been given to this character to just dump comes across as a poorly wrapped bandage. As if they were doing play tests and realised people didn’t get that anarchism was supposed to be a strong theme in the game, so they literally just copied and pasted the first few sentences of the Wikipedia article into the script and then created an entirely new character to read it out. Word also “predicts” that the future will involve pain in the name of change, that the people of Zenozoik are going to have to struggle in order to make their world better. And yeah, they do. There are two whole other games that detail aspects of that struggle. Some clairvoyance this whale has. Real gifted individual. And the way Pseudo leans to the Boy to say “do you understand what this guy’s talking about?” is the same 4th wall unbreaking that Pathologic was pulling back in 2005. It’s not so exciting 18 years later.
While it is part of the greater Zeno Clash universe, it isn’t necessary to have played the previous two games in order to understand this one. There are characters you might lack context for and little easter eggs that you likely won’t understand if you only play Clash: Artifacts of Chaos, but overall, I would definitely recommend playing this. It’s just as unique as the first Zeno Clash, while allowing for the customization available in Zeno Clash 2, and I think its graphics are far more appealing. There is one caveat to this recommendation, though, and that is a hardware issue. This game is very resource intensive, and I actually couldn’t run the game at low settings and record it via OBS with my previous GPU. I had some rinky-dink AMD card that was a couple of years old by that point, but I’m now running a 4070 which allowed me to record the game at its prettiest. That being said, if you don’t intend to record your playthrough then it probably won’t be a concern.
I think Clash: Artifacts of Chaos achieved exactly what Ace Team intended for it to achieve. There’s a new, modern feeling combat system, the visual presentation is on another level in terms of quality over their previous titles, the world shadows the Dark Souls style interconnected map with looping level design, and there’s a charming character dynamic to enjoy throughout the game’s generous run time. The game ticks all of these boxes and it’s a lot of fun, Ace Team should be commended for making such an excellent game. But I think they felt Artifacts of Chaos had to adhere to the themes they were exploring in previous Zeno Clash games and resorted to jamming those themes in with little consideration with how it’d work. Zenozoik has a law and a hierarchical leader, not anarchy, and that law and leader are the reason for the conflict in the game, not some condition of the setting that the narrative has to work around. The othering of Zenozoik’s population and their isolation within their borders is not a factor any of the characters ever think about, save for one instance where it is mentioned and quickly forgotten. Don’t misunderstand me, I like this game a lot, I just wish it could’ve lived without feeling like it had to tie itself to something else. The setting and character designs were more than enough, and that would’ve been far, far easier to manage than trying to shoe-horn in this strange pseudo-anarchy.
More fighting with some wacky characters to come!
This review contains spoilers
The Dark Crystal video game I’ve always wanted.
Fun fact about me if you drop an impossibly fictional alien world in front of me I will be so intrigued with it’s inner working and lore for like days, and then on top of that you also making it look so visually breathtaking and innovative then my brain just goes into hyperfixation mode and stays that way for a good while. This doesn't always work, Avatar is a world I find interesting but besides service level interest that’s about it, and other alien worlds like Transformers frustrate me since it feels like no matter what version I’m watching it’s always changing up it’s core lore to the point where I can’t get as invested as I should be (in the case of the Bay movies it recones it’s own lore like every movie). But in the case of something like Dark Crystal I am just so enraptured but literally every aspect of it’s world building and creatures I just wish I could explore it more; Clash Artifacts of Chaos scratches that feeling Dark Crystal gave me and then some.
I wasn't familiar with the Zeno Clash series before playing this game. Hell, the only reason I even decided to try this game out was because I saw a youtube ad at 5 am and thought it looked really cool. Now I really want to try out the rest because my god I love this world this game has. Everything from the absurdly ugly yet amazing look residents of Zenozoik, to the wild yet beautiful flora and landscape of the world just read like something you could only do in fiction. The lore and ways of the residents of Zenozoik has just intrigue the hell out of me. Where did the one law come from? Why is it the only law that everyone follows besides the Corwid? What is the world like outside of Zenozoik and who are these mysterious alien- like beings? What's the deal with the child's “curse”? Why can Pseudo’s soul leave his body and explore the world and re-enter his body? Are there straight up aliens in this world or is it some kind of shadowy elite group of people and the whole world of Zenozoik is just a dumping ground of people too wild and crazy for their new world order? I don’t have the answers to any of these questions and I genuinely love that so much. Having the world act more as a character really helps to make the world feel so alien and unknown, but the more you explore and learn not just from the character but the world itself through visual storytelling and meeting all the crazy characters of Zenozoik really starts to paint a picture of what this world is; Dark Crystal did the same thing with its dying land of Tra from the hands of the cruel and twisted Skeksis. I just love still finding new imaginative worlds to explore still in an era where everything feels rehashed and overdone.
The plot is overall pretty simple but made very engaging from the aforementioned creative world building and its fun cast of weirdos. Pseudo is a really fun main character, for as weird and emaciated he looks he is both familiar enough with the land with the land to have a good understanding of it but also jaded enough to where nothing really surprises him anymore, making a really fun deadpan main character who just follows in the motions of his lonely isolationist ways. This really helps with the child who he protects over the course of the game. The kid never really felt annoying or used for extra saccharine moments that other AAA games does with this sort of set-up; he just really bounces off of Pseudo’s cynical mindset so well and I actually get really attached with their bound by the end which is very impressive given how short this game is.
Before I go on about the gameplay I really need to make this short little part about how the game looks visually. For a lot of AA games they don’t really have the budget to go all out with graphics and when they do it normally looks really cheap and kinda bad. Here however they did something that I’ve been seeing more animated movies do; they gave the game a really pretty colored pencil drawn art style. Not only does this style look really pretty and even breathtaking at times; but in the options menu you have the option to mess around with the filter of the pencil drawn lines to space them out more or even to make them actively wavy, kinda like the outlines of Ed Edd and Eddy characters. Not only is this a really cool option that can make the areas look even more alive then it already did but you can also change it to black and white, and rather then it just being a basic filter that just makes the game look gray, it instead changes up the whole art style to resemble more of a manga look, resembling even some Berserk panels at times. I just think the use of the art style and even having the option to mess around with it is just so cool and I wish more games would attempt to try it.
The gameplay part of the game is where I honestly start to stumble a little. It’s not bad far from it it’s pretty fun at times, but if I were to call this game a souls like; which it technically calls itself then it’s quite possibly the easiest souls like game I’ve ever played and never really uses it’s souls like nature to really do anything with the formula outside of the most basic aspects of it. The way you explore the world is also kinda clunky. You are required to explore each part of the semi-open area map to find parts of a army set to uses against the final boss but they don’t tell you that; the game just kinda expect you to know where to go at all times and it really doesn't help that half way through the game you need to go out of your way to an area to unlock a power just to be able to go to the last two areas, but the game never told me that so for a good 30 minutes I just fucked around trying to figure out what where I needed to go. Besides these faults thought the gameplay is still pretty solid, the combat is a little repetitive with enemies that felt very spongy, but as the game went along and I upgrade more and unlocked new combat stances and moves it started getting more engaging and by the end I didn’t really have that much of a problem
I haven't been this surprised with a game before in a LONG time. I may not have known about the Zeno Clash series before but I will 100% be checking out those games later on because my god I just can’t get enough of this world and it’s lore. This is without a doubt the biggest surprise of 2023 for me and I don’t think any other game will come along and really surprise me like this game did. Maybe I should listen to more YouTube targeted ads………………………naaa.
Clash: Artifacts of Chaos is the highly unexpected follow-up to Zeno Clash 1 & 2 after a 10-year break from the series. What was previously a first-person brawler is now a third-person action and exploration game that takes some inspiration from the Soulslike genre while still retaining its own identity.
At first, I was put off by the similarities to Dark Souls with its campfires and corpse runs, but Ace Team were smart enough to not lift its mechanics wholesale. You can rest at campsites to restore health and healing flasks, but this doesn't respawn every monster. During the daytime, nearly every combat encounter is bespoke and once won, they're gone for good. This alleviates the frustration of wanting to backtrack to heal up as you have already cleared the path ahead for your next run. You can opt to wake up from a campsite at night when enemies will always return (or be forced into nighttime by attempting a corpse run), but you rarely need to backtrack at this time unless you're a completionist hunting out every item or optional boss fight.
Combat seems simple at first, consisting simply of a light attack, heavy attack and dodge button but there's a lot of room for complexity with dodge-cancels, dodge-specific attacks and multiple stances. As your mentor tells you at the start of the game, you aren't as strong as the other creatures in the game's world of Zenozoik so you must use speed and evasion to survive. I stuck to one stance for most of the game, having already spent a lot of upgrade materials on it, but there are many to unlock if you want to switch things up. They all seemed viable with variations in attack range and strength although I didn't see a compelling reason to switch from one stance to another for different enemies.
Your basic light chain combo is enough to get by early on but very soon your opponents become much more aggressive and you'll be forced to dodge-cancel to avoid their counters while still keeping up your flurry of attacks. Striking directly after a dodge will perform different moves depending on the direction you dodged in, so keeping aware of your surroundings and which direction you want to leave open to you can be vital. Much like the previous Zeno Clash games combat never really feels great against a group with it being quite easy to be ganged up on, though the third-person camera makes this a little easier to manage. This is also helped by a type of "duel" mode you earn by building a meter during a fight where you enter a first-person camera and fight one-on-one with your target, their buddies taking a back seat until you're finished.
Before most encounters you can choose to engage in The Ritual, a strategic dice game that lets the winner force a penalty on the loser such as drinking a slow-acting poison, or being tethered to a confined area. This can be helpful for opponents that you are struggling with but the penalties are usually small enough that I tended to jump straight into combat and ended the game with a large collection of entirely unused Ritual items.
You could draw some story similarities to The Last of Us or the recent God of War games - you are Pseudo, a detached hermit who through chance is forced to protect a reviled young child who has a strange power that can harm or heal others. Clash is surprisingly good at making the growing attachment between Pseudo and The Boy feel slow and natural, despite the relative lack of conversation. The voice acting isn't naturalistic, with some characters sounding odd in a way that further adds to the game's intentionally bizarre feel, yet I somehow felt a stronger connection to these characters and this world than I do for larger budget titles with "better" writing.
The series has gradually expanded its storytelling, with Clash acting as a soft reboot and covering some of the same worldbuilding that Zeno Clash 2 did in a manner that is perfect for new players to catch up but doesn't leave existing fans feeling like they're retreading old ground. The writers do a fantastic job of trickling out lore while leaving enough unanswered to let the world continue to feel mysterious and alien. I'm a big fan of not overexplaining everything through endless exposition and just letting things be weird for weirdness' sake.
Zeno Clash is known for its unique aesthetic and grotesque creatures and that certainly hasn't been compromised here in an attempt to reach a wider audience. If anything, they have doubled down on their vision the player character being a noseless guy who is somehow both buff and scrawny, with a few strands of thick wiry hair sticking out of his body. In the previous games, you played as one of the few fairly normal-looking human characters, so the switch to someone who is the polar opposite of the traditional handsome video game protagonist is welcome.
In the ten years since the last game, Ace Team have clearly had a lot of time to hone the "punk fantasy" aesthetic that they have been working to achieve, with Clash featuring a blend of pencil sketch outlines over a world that looks as though it was painted in watercolours - not unlike Valkyria Chronicles. It looks gorgeous and I found myself screenshotting much more often than I would in games with much larger budgets.
The density of the world of Zenozoik, much like The Boy's powers, is both a blessing and a curse. Each landscape feels like a lived-in space, with fallen rocks, foliage and abandoned tents scattered about - but this also makes the areas difficult to navigate with the path forward often being obscured, or confusion in determining which small ledges can be stepped over and which are level boundaries.
A real highlight is the soundtrack, which stands out as some of the most evocative music I've heard in a video game since NieR. From a sombre chorus over gentle strings to chunky guitars that sound like Gwar are ready to appear on stage, there is an unexpected range to the music that never sounds out of place in the strange and varied areas you visit.
Clash: Artifacts of Chaos is an ambitious game given the small team and its flaws can easily be overlooked for everything else it has to offer. If you've ever been curious about the strange creations of Ace Team, this is a great place to start.
The decade-later third game in the Zeno Clash series, Clash is a fairly significant departure. Rather than a linear first-person brawler, it's now a (mostly) third-person action-RPG. Hand-to-hand combat is still the core of the gameplay, but exploration is key.
You play as Pseudo, aka The Hermit, a guy living in the freaked-out world of Zenozoik who happens across The Boy, a little bird fella with special powers, orphaned when his grandfather dies. As is standard for this sort of Lone Wolf and Cub riff, the Empress wants the Boy's power for herself, and so pretty much everyone you encounter wants to fight you.
The story, though basic and somewhat derivative, is told well, and Pseudo and The Boy's performances are especially great. This game also gives you far more backstory on the world than either of the first two games did, and I could understand if fans of the series don't like it. In a way, it removes a bit of the mystery of Zenozoik, but it made me more interested to see what the future might have in store, especially considering the ending.
The vibes, by the way, are immaculate. This is the most Nier-ass game I've played since, uhhhh, Nier: Automata. Specifically, if you like Nier 1, I think you'll get a lot out of Clash.
Some have described this as a souls-like, and I don't think that's accurate. There are similarities, but if you go into it expecting that, you'll probably be disappointed. To get into the nitty-gritty of the gameplay, you pick from one of three combat stances at the beginning. You can unlock more through totems you find in the world, and you unlock special moves via the same method. You can have 3 special moves mapped at once.
You gain XP through fights, which levels you up and gives you skill points to put into your core attributes. You also collect figurines in the environment that are sorta like weapon upgrade materials, as they're used to power up your stances and specials. Because of their limited availability, you're best off picking a core loadout and sticking with it instead of spreading points around, as there is no respec function.
The game also has a day/night system. Not in realtime, but more like a LTTP-style Dark World phase, where Pseudo can go to sleep and "dreamwalk" in a strange Groot form. At night, the enemies change, you can access areas unavailable when awake, new items will be available, and the Night Avatar form can be customized with different body parts you find while asleep. If you die during normal gameplay, you also respawn in this form to do a corpse run, but if you die again, it's back to a checkpoint.
One interesting, though under-utilized, twist on the gameplay is the Ritual. The people of this world only abide by the One Law, which is that if you're challenged to a weird little dice game, you have to play. You can challenge any hostile, intelligent being you come across, and then whoever wins gets to impose a certain stipulation on the fight, chosen via one of the titular Artifacts. For example, being forced to drink a slow-acting poison, or being allowed to summon an ally, or, my favorite, getting one free hit at the beginning with a giant stick like Bart smashing Homer with a chair.
The issue with this is that there's not really much of an incentive to do it. The complications usually don't make a huge difference, and after a few hours I started just walking up to enemies and punching them.
Lastly, I'll say that the game is still a bit buggy as of this writing. Playing on Xbox Series X, the optimization isn't quite where it needs to be. It's mostly fine, but some areas in particular bog the framerate down to the mid-40s for no apparent reason and it feels pretty bad. A couple of other bugs I encountered:
- UI elements getting stuck (weapon info panels still on screen when moving between tabs at a trader, etc)
- random fade out/ins, almost like it's loading something. These are very quick, maybe a second, but it would occasionally happen during combat. No idea what's happening here
- random fade out/ins, almost like it's loading something. These are very quick, maybe a second, but it would occasionally happen during combat. No idea what's happening here
To their credit, the developers have been very good about fixing the game's bugs already. They're super responsive on the Steam forums and whatnot, and actively patching it. I would bet in a couple of months everything will be ironed out.
Even as it stands now, despite some minor annoyances, I loved this game. I'll check back later this year, and if the issues have been fixed, revise this to a 4.5.
There's a lot of heart and soul in this game even tho it lacks the substance to pull off what it clearly wants to do. Fantastic art and music are somewhat hurt by an ultimately not that engaging combat system and sometimes confusing level design that doesn't make it clear where it wants you to go but the creativity on display here was enough to keep me going