"I'm still not sure I get it." Those words, spoken in a rare quiet moment by your cavegirl sidekick Deadra, sum up Zeno Clash, a bizarre action game made by Chilean indie ACE Team and available through Steam, Valve Software's online content delivery service. Everything here save for the blend of melee fighting with first-person shooting is absolutely insane. Dialogue is nonsensical. And the background architecture and terrain could are right out of a surrealist painting. Only fast and furious scrapping saves the game from being an incomprehensible mess; you don't have to worry about the crazy plot when you're beating somebody's head in with a club.
You play as Ghat, a warrior fleeing from family members who want to kill him, and you're accompanied by your spunky and heavily afro'd female buddy Deadra. The basic objective is to get out of town as fast as possible, pausing only to beat the heck out of the baddies who have been sent to execute you for the unpardonable crime of killing Father-Mother, the hermaphroditic parent creature that spawned your clan and--OK, here it gets deeply weird. Even after finishing the single-player campaign, it's impossible to understand what actually occurred. Nothing makes any sense, from the creepy opening cinematic through the numerous confusing flashbacks to the absurd dialogue. The script is littered with lines like "They are not slaves of reality, so they can be insane," "Gabel ate people, that's just what he had to do," and, one of the most memorable, "Armenia peed on herself and starved to death anonymously." Even the levels themselves are unreal. Everything from houses to hills is marked with the sort of impossible curves and high-pitched roofs last seen in Whoville. It's all very atmospheric, and the art certainly gives the game a distinct mood, but it also seems a little too much, given the strangeness of everything else. Without some attachment to reality, the unrelentingly surreal trappings come off as gimmicky.
You can at least try to ignore the nutty stuff by focusing on the game mechanics, which are a hybrid of a beat-'em-up and a first-person shooter. The game is played from a first-person perspective, like a standard shooter, but most of the combat is based around going toe to toe and throwing punches. You proceed through the 18 levels of the campaign as if you were going through a shooter, but you stop for highlighted showdowns with small groups of enemies instead of gunning down all comers on a steady basis. As in beat-'em-ups, fights are kicked off with splash screens that show yourself and the enemy combatants before the fisticuffs get underway. A strange selection of weapons is available, including ancient-looking crossbows, clubs, and pistols that appear to be constructed from conch shells, but the focus is on using your fists and feet. Ranged weapons are fairly rare, with usually no more than one lying around during each showdown, and they take such a long time to reload that they are typically knocked out of your hands before you can use them more than once or twice. Even the club is hard to use well because you have to cock it back with the right mouse button and swing it with the left, a lengthy process that usually sees it smacked out of your hands after you get in a couple of whacks.
Consequently, duking it out is the way to go in Zeno Clash, and it can be pretty fulfilling. The controls are quite sharp, which makes the act of punching out opponents relatively easy to handle from the offbeat first-person camera perspective (and gives each punch to the face a satisfying oomph). You can lock on to baddies, which limits your viewing range so you can focus on taking down gangs of enemy goons one at a time, and you can even throw them to the ground to deliver a machine-gun series of knees to the head. But it's all a little too simplistic to be entertaining for long. Fighting is just a matter of mashing the left and right mouse buttons to punch and kick while occasionally hitting the spacebar to block. On the default difficulty setting, enemies are generally no match for you one-on-one, with only the odd boss battle proving to be much of a challenge. (Incidentally, these are also extremely weird, especially the one in which a blind enemy throws exploding squirrels at you from atop a dinosaur.) So the game compensates for this lack of fighting skill by always sending at least a few foes your way. This gets pretty tough by about the midway point of the campaign and becomes ridiculously hard by the end.
You spend most battles beating the tar out of one opponent while his buddies take turns shooting you in the back or punching you in the head from behind. It's impossible to track multiple enemies due to the first-person camera, so you need to shuttle back and forth between adversaries in an attempt to minimize the damage being taken from shots to the back. In some ways, it feels more like you're in a race than a fight. Considering that you regularly get hurt by sneak attacks from behind, you feel constant pressure to wrap battles up as quickly as possible before your health bar dwindles away.
Unsurprisingly, this all becomes rather monotonous after an hour or so of steady play. It's probably a blessing that the game has just 18 levels and a challenge mode in which you fight your way up a tower filled with enemies on every level; anything more would be hard to sit through (there is no multiplayer mode). The most interesting aspect of the battles actually turns out to be the creepy nature of your opponents. Human bad guys have distorted facial features, such as outrageously stretched jaws and elongated noses, which give the game a disturbing vibe. Nonhuman foes are even stranger. Some have eerie dead-black eyes, some have beaks, some are blind, and some are disfigured in odd ways. Most are so offbeat that it's tough to describe them. Many seem to have been influenced by the bizarre creatures in the art of medieval painter Hieronymus Bosch, which has to be a first for a beat-'em-up computer game.
Perhaps the best comment that you could make about Zeno Clash is that it is a unique experience. You get plenty weirded out for the cut-rate Steam price of $20. This is no small feat in today's copycat gaming world, although the game relies too much on strangeness and not enough on diverse, interesting fighting action to be more than a briefly engaging curiosity.