It’s been quite a while since we last explored the Zeno Clash universe. Developers ACE Team are based in Santiago, Chile, and are responsible for both the Rock of Ages series and Zeno Clash 1 and 2, released in 2009 and 2013 respectively. Remembered equally for their first-person fighting and their fascinating art style, Clash: Artifacts of Chaos drops us back into the fantastical world of Zenozoik, but this time into the body of the yellow-skinned “man”, Pseudo. The gameplay has changed from first-person to third, along with a combat system which has been clearly inspired by the Dark Souls series.
There is a story, but it’s fairly minimal. Once you awaken as Pseudo, you swiftly encounter an elderly grandfather/bird-like man who is being challenged to a duel by a hulking brute. Unfortunately the old man loses, meaning Pseudo reluctantly adopts the man’s grandson; a small black-feathered, bird-footed little boy, and offers to take him to safety. Along the way, you both get roped into an adventure across the entire landmass to protect the boy against the main villain, Gemini. The voice acting throughout is actually pretty enjoyable and seeing and learning tidbits about the lore of this fantastically beautiful world is always fun. What unfortunately isn’t always fun is the core gameplay loop.
Zenozoik is full of animals, people, and people who are animals who want to kill you, either just immediately approaching you to fight, or by challenging you via the ritual. You begin with three main combat styles, but can find and unlock more at totems scattered around the world. Each style has a main attack, and a secondary attack, which can be upgraded to include additional secondary attacks. Likewise you can dodge out of the way of enemies, and if you have very precise timing you can also parry incoming attacks. Every so often you can unleash a special move where you go first-person, zooming in and pummelling beasts with both fists. Hit hard enough, and you can do a finisher to take off a significant chunk of health. You also occasionally get to use weapons, although these can be fairly rare and have a durability which quickly degrades.
There are also Ritual fights; these are against the humanoid or intelligent inhabitants of the world and have Psuedo and the opponent both placing down a Consequence Artifact, and then playing a short dice game. You can use powers to change both your own dice rolls and those of your rival, to hopefully sway the outcome. The player at the end of the encounter with the higher dice roll wins, while the loser is subjected to the drawback the victor’s artifact carries.
For example, in one fight I managed to win, I was able to tie my opponent down with a leash, limiting their range of movement. In another, I was infected with bees and small damage debuffs if I stopped moving. If you die, you are resurrected as Psuedo’s skeleton version at night time, and must fight your way back to where your corpse was to fully restore yourself. If you die as a skeleton, it’s game over and you’re forced to restart from the last checkpoint.
Combat generally feels fine, but a bit lightweight and lacking feedback; Pseudo’s attacks look powerful, but enemies often don’t react to your blows. Likewise despite the moderately varied combat styles they all somewhat blend together, and enemies do not really care what style you fight them with. You can upgrade Pseudo’s abilities, but it’s a slow process to grind experience and even after upgrading, even the weakest monsters still aren’t a cakewalk.
The biggest problem is the checkpoint save system and the hard game over should you die as a skeleton, which means you can routinely lose large amounts of progress since you can only trigger a save at campsites, and these can be few and far between. It’s very frustrating since it can throw you back to before you’d fought a dozen different enemies, all of which you now have to face all over again. There is only one default difficulty option so if you’re dying over and over again to the same encounter, you get into a Groundhog Day-esque loop of despair which it can be difficult to break out from.
The game’s absolute standout feature is its incredible, expressionist art style. The vibrant world is brought to life through amazing attention to detail in the environment, fantastical and inventive character design, and a vibrant colour palette. Everything has a painterly or hand-drawn look, from the world to characters, and they all animate wonderfully. People can look like a Picasso painting or something from a fairytale, or both at once. The world is craggy and rolling, like Tolkein’s The Shire mixed with an MC Esther painting. The artistry on display is impressive, and you’ll find yourself constantly immersed in the game’s unique charm, eager to explore every corner. Likewise the soundtrack is definitely a highlight, with a memorable and appropriately bombastic orchestral score.
While the world is gorgeous, getting around it can be rather tiresome. The map is extremely small and lacking any detail, meaning it won’t show you paths or routes, just the vague shape of the landmass. Often trinkets and upgrades are hidden in chests off the beaten path (with different areas accessible depending on whether you are in living or skeleton form), or behind bramble bushes. You’re never really given an objective marker to show you where you’re going, meaning you just need to try and feel your way through the world based on whether enemies seem overleveled compared to you.
If you enjoy hard Soulslike games and appreciate a challenge, you are probably going to get a lot more out of Clash: Artifacts of Chaos than others, who should appreciate the excellent and inventive worldbuilding but might struggle with the repetitive and rather punishing combat. Clash: Artifacts of Chaos has a dazzlingly beautiful art style which is a joy to behold, but it often struggles to make the moment to moment gameplay feel fun and engaging. This game seems destined to be another exactly like Zeno Clash 1 and 2; to be appreciated by a select group of connoisseurs as a cult classic.