Developer ACE Team has a small but eclectic ludography. From Roguelikes with fighting game inputs to rolling a conscious rock, it goes in all directions. Even within that body of work, Zeno Clash is special. After all, you rarely see first person boxing, nor an almost psychedelic world like Zenozoik’s. The series is a niche within a niche. Not surprisingly, it remained quiet for about a decade after the previous Zeno Clash game. Still, the studio is giving the series another chance: this time from third person, and in the somewhat more modern guise of a Soulslike. Very little changes. Clash: Artifacts of Chaos is also an interesting game rather than a good one. However, it is once again an experience you won’t find anywhere else outside of this series.
Clash tells a self-contained story, but set in Zenozoik: the same world as that of the previous two Zeno Clash games. The name of the world (derived from Cenozoic) implies a certain primitiveness. This is true: the population lives in huts, swings clubs and there are few laws or rules. At the same time, it does not look like the start of intelligent life, but a restart. Indeed, there is the atmosphere of a post-apocalypse. What civilization there is feels thrown together. Even the inhabitants – often deformed human-animal hybrids – seem more the result of an artificial disaster than a freak of nature.
Few games have such a bizarre, distinct aesthetic. Clash goes even a bit further in depicting the strange, often somewhat sordid Zenozoik than its predecessors did. In part, this is due to the hand-drawn style. Zeno Clash clearly had the same inspirations, but Artifacts of Chaos actually looks like a living comic by a Moebius or James Stokoe. Everything from the almost alien environments to the monstrous monsters inhabiting them is bursting with detail and fantasy. The rather phallic protagonist Pseudo fits in perfectly and looks like he stepped right out of Arzach or Heavy Metal.
You wouldn’t say it with such a strange fantasy setting, but Clash tells a story in the Western tradition. Pseudo is an alien with an aversion to injustice. Unintentionally, he mixes in the problems of a defenseless, crow-like monster called “the boy. Although Pseudo only wants to protect him from a robber, he soon finds himself saddled with bigger and bigger problems. Before he can disappear into the distance again under a sunset, he will have to defeat the corrupt rulers in the area, and restore peace. After all, the boy is not just a cute doughball. He possesses healing powers that Gemini, the local, violent chief, would like to abuse.
The boy is not the only one with special powers. The abilities of Pseudo himself are at least as mysterious. Not only does he traverse the wasteland as a pecker-shaped Kenshiro while karate-kicking: he also possesses multiple lives. Once he is defeated in his standard form, he awakens at night in another, more rocky body. If he manages to find his previous corpse this way, he can resume his adventure as if nothing had happened.
As you may have already figured out, this is where the Soulslike mechanics come in. Yet it works slightly differently than you might expect. You don’t lose exp or gold here when you die: you really lose your body. Your second chance is thus immediately your last. If you die a second time without picking up your body, it’s game-over and you start at the spot where you last saved in your original form.
At the same time, your extra body is more than just an extra life. Both bodies have different equipment, for example, and the world is different at night than during the day. There are other, for example, new enemies, as well as other objects to find. In his second form, thanks to his lack of fragile skin, Pseudo can move through dangerous obstacles. Thus, at certain times at night (with a single life) you will have to explore to clear a path for your other body during the day.
So the challenge here is very straightforward: you always know where you stand.
Anyway, Clash is structured a bit differently than your average Soulslike. While it is a semi-open world full of circular shortcuts, there is little in the way of traps or hidden enemies. With each intelligent enemy, the game proceeds to a martial arts match, with all participants being neatly introduced first. So the challenge here is very straightforward: you always know where you stand.
At least, most fights do involve a random ritual first. This is because there is one law in Zenozoik, and it says that you can fight with anyone for anything, as long as you roll dice with them first. You roll that dice in hopes of putting in an artifact. Depending on the artifact, the winner gets to deal the first blow, poison the opponent before the fight, or use a previously defeated enemy as a sidekick – just to name a few possibilities. Unfortunately, the dice mini-game itself doesn’t amount to much and takes up quite a lot of time, but the implications are always interesting. Fortunately, at least you don’t have to roll the dice yourself every time: you can also ask the boy to do it for you.
The fights themselves are a bit more involved than those of Zeno Clash, but are still simplistic. You can now choose your own fighting style and three special attacks, and there is a special meter. When that meter is full, the camera shifts to first person perspective and you can strike at the enemy as you could in previous games, but this time with a strong finisher at the end. The enemies also have more of their own moveset than in previous games. For example, fast, cat-like creatures will try to jump at you, and elephant-like creatures will storm at you.
Still, as in the previous games, it mostly comes down to running around the enemy, making a quick attack and dodging again. You’re only at risk if you get into a group of enemies. Combat doesn’t necessarily feel very fair, challenging or satisfying this way. Deeper systems like parry, stamina management and the weapons you can use are so arbitrary in the process that they add little and you can pretty much ignore them.
Another recurring problem of Zeno Clash is that the environments are also a bit too detailed here. In Clash, important objects are admittedly better marked: there is smoke coming off campfires where you can save, and climbable rocks are marked with red crow’s feet. Still, it’s often not clear where to go: the map is so inaccurate as to be virtually unusable, and a walkable path is sometimes barely distinguishable from the rest of the environment. Somehow that’s the charm: the game invites you to figure things out for yourself. Unfortunately, it also makes the game a lot less readable, and useful materials for crafting soon disappear into the environment.
As a game, then, Clash: Artifacts of Chaos leaves quite a bit to be desired. The world is unclear, the game offers extremely little control for the player, and how it plays is not particularly enervating. All systems outside of direct action are arbitrary or even totally irrelevant. Both in direct combat and in building your character, Clash won’t challenge you anywhere in the way that other, better Soulslikes do. Still, Clash is an exceptional title, if only because of its visual style and the world it paints. It’s hard to recommend a game for such, seemingly superficial, reasons. Yet that is (the only) thing that makes Clash worthwhile.