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Zeno Clash: Do Indie Games Get An Easy Deal?

By on April 25, 2009
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I’ve been playing Zeno Clash recently. It’s a visceral first person brawler with a skew-whiff aesthetic, and the debut from small Chilean team Ace. It’s been cleaning up at review… and I can’t help but wonder why. Zeno Clash – despite its outlandish looks and unfamiliar take on genre – just isn’t a great game to play.

Are we giving indie games a get out of jail free card just because we love to bet on the underdog?

Zeno Clash is a four hour game, at a £15 price tag. It’s undeniably a visually arresting and inventive experience, although there’s no intelligible justification for the bizarre images and garbled narrative. It’s also rough around the edges, and features an inferior combat system that cannot handle targeting, weapons, range or multiple enemies – things that come into play on a regular basis. For a game of such singular focus and limited scope to be outdone by the melee combat in Riddick five years ago seems to me somewhat damning.

And yet it’s a point willingly overlooked by a growing number of reviewers: IGN, Eurogamer, Rock Paper Shotgun… some note and discard the combat inconsistencies, some fail to mention them (but they are objectively there).

It’s a growing trend that I’ve certainly benefited from in the past. If I had a penny for every time I’d read the phrase ‘Penumbra is a solid game made great when you realise it’s been made by a team of five,” I’d have a lot of pennies. Reviewers, it seems, are quite happy to note massive flaws in the makeup of a title, only to dismiss them because they’re understandable repurcussions of small teams and tight budgets.

Clearly we have to make allowances (and I’m glad that we do) for the fact that reviews are subjective things. Ultimately, the knowledge that a game was produced by a small team doesn’t make it an objectively better game, but it might legitimately affect a player’s subjective perception of it, and that’s something reviews should be aiming to capture and communicate. However, such an approach seems at odds with the issuance of an objective 80% or 90% score in the context of a write up that states the core functionality of the game is sub-par.

This seems to me to be doing both indie and mainstream games a disservice. How are we (as consumers) to be seen to be supporting innovation in AAA products when we don’t extend those games the same benefit of the doubt when they take risks and don’t succeed? Had EA put out Zeno Clash we would never willingly overlook a broken fight system and bipolar approach to polish.

Meanwhile, indie games deserve to stand up on their own two feet – giving them this head start only undermines their claim to legitimacy.

Zeno Clash looks gorgeous, and it’s a promising debut. I’d recommend checking it out. As a game, though, it’s just not all that. The sooner we stop convincing ourselves every indie oddball is a hidden gem, the sooner the gems will start coming out the woodwork.

About Tom Jubert

Tom Jubert is a freelance games writer / narrative designer, best known for his work on the Penumbra series, for which he was nominated for a Writers' Guild Award. His upcoming releases include Lost Horizon and Driver: San Francisco. He was previously the Managing Editor at GameShadow.com, and has also spent time in production.
  • I’ve just finished this game, and I wouldn’t say i’m impressed. For one, it’s based on the HL2 engine. Before you go saying “yeah, but every game is based on some form of engine” i’m very hard to please when it comes to mechanics in games. The only way you will get a point in the mechanics section, is if you’ve coded it from the bottom-up, and not used pre-made engine sources to base your game on.

    Another thing I thought was bad about the game is that it becomes way too boring as you progress through the game. Sure, the first few minutes of the game were amazing and fun, but when you end up just doing the same stuff over and over again… It really picks off some rating points.

    Then there was the issue about the story. I’ve played hundreds of games, of all genres, and I can honestly say, if you don’t have a compelling storyline, then you’ve got no game at all. For me, the story is the backbone of the entire game. Sometimes, I can honestly not care if you’ve got a game that runs 2D or OpenGL hardware graphics, and shader modelling 1.0, if it’s got just a half-way decent storyline…
    Take for example the old old old game “Sacrifice” from Shiny Entertainments. Shiny is/was a very small company when they made Sacrifice, but it doesn’t affect my review. However, at the time Sacrifice was released, the stores were filled with all kinds of amazing games. I had NEVER heard of Sacrifice, maybe to blame Shiny for this, because of bad marketing… But whatever. My friend introduced me to the game.

    Sacrifice wasn’t using any amazing technology, but the storyline had you at the edge of your seat all the time. Not because it was action-filled fast-paced AT ALL… But because you felt connected to the world the game was set in… While you were battling an army, some giant green dragon would come flying over you and generate a cutscene (caught me completely off guard) where the dragon would scream something (can’t remember what).
    These were the special little moments that really just made me give 11/10’s away for free. Sacrifice was based on it’s own engine as well, so far I know.

    So bottom-line is to all game developers; If you want to make a good game… You set a priority on what to focus on first:
    1. Mechanics.
    2. Storyline.
    3. Graphics.
    Graphics are important to appeal to a larger audience and make people talk about the game… BUT NOTHING MORE. Graphics don’t make the game.
    Storyline is what will make your game be remembered, and still be replayed after years and years.
    And at last; Mechanics is what will make players stay… If you keep the mechanics bearable, fun and implement consistent relevance between controls and the “overall concept of the game” (with this I mean; If you can make a game where you can just use the mouse to control you dude, then don’t put in keyboard controls… It will irritate the player), then you’ve got yourself one hell of a game.

    I give Zeno Clash 5/10

  • Angel Dust

    While I have no doubt that some indie favouritism pops up from time to time it in no way comapares to hyberbolic reponse given to all the massively hyped games. GTA IV was a game a really enjoyed but in no way did it deserve all the ridiculous levels of praise it was garnering. The game had some big flaws and a lot of them had been around every since the series started. Fallout 3 was another game wildly praised despite the fact it had some serious balancing issues, needless padding and some truly awful writing tied to an equally awful main plotline.
    I also don’t think Zeno Clash has really been getting any favouritism as the reviews have generally been of the good but not great variety and always point out the flaws it does have. It’s just so much fun that it overcomes any problems it does have to leave an overall favourable impression and unlike the aforementioned, equally flawed yet still enjoyable, AAA titles the scores haven’t been of the ridiculous 10/10 variety and a more reasonable 7-8/10

  • Pantsman

    I think the generally high reviews is proof not that reviewers are overlooking “objective” flaws in the gameplay as much as it is proof that there is no such thing as an objective flaw. I have only one small problem with the game’s combat, that being that there’s no “unlock” button to stop focusing on someone. Everything else strikes me as perfect. Am I wrong or mistaken to enjoy it? That seems to be the natural conclusion to draw from claims that there are objective problems with the gameplay.

    People seem to have a problem realizing that so much of experience really is subjective. It’s all to common for someone to play a game (or watch a movie or read a book or hear a band) which has received high praise from many others, and when they don’t like it themselves, assume that it is “overrated” – in other words, that those who like it are somehow biased or lying to themselves. It never seems to occur to them that other people might genuinely enjoy something that they themselves do not.

    Such ranting becomes especially shrill when there is a conspicuous perceived cause for such bias, as in the case of indie games such as Zeno Clash. So ask yourself this, Tom: Is it possible that the flaws which you view as objective might not actually impact the enjoyment of other players? Is it possible that they might even enhance the enjoyment of other players? Is it possible that some of these players might be reviewers? Is it possible, in other words, that most people actually do enjoy the game more than you?

  • yay i got a name

    I loved it! It was a long time ago I played a game I enjoyed so much and I got it for only 10 bucks so I couldnt be happier about it. Only thing I would have liked is if it were longer but since its indie and cheap I cant blame it for being short, instead I see the hunger for more as a sign for how good it is.

    Oh yeah, and better voice acting. I can overlook that but at some places its truly horrible and at best it’s OK to average. Seriously, that horn-girl must have been the worst voice acting I’ve ever heard in a game that is otherwise made out of quality.

  • Muzz

    Does three positive reviews of one weird indie brawler really constitute ‘rampant’ indie favoritism?
    Couldn’t they just have liked it? (reviews of games big and small leave out mechanical quirks and failings, that to some people are fundamentally game breakingly annoying, all the time. Comments threads on every game site tend to bear this out.)

  • Ha ha, no problem matey.

    It is, of course, a spectacularly dificult thing to prove either way. All I would say is that there’s sufficient evidence (such as reviews openly citing games’ indie origins as positive features, plus plain old human psychology) to necessitate the discussion.

  • Ignore the Penumbra comment, as I spectacularly forgot who you were for a moment then. Oops.

  • Okay then.

    “Are indie games scored higher because the teams are perceived to have fought adversity?”

    Pretty much never, from where I’m sitting. I’d like to see some concrete examples of where this is irrefutably the case before I believed that. One of the first things that struck me about Zeno Clash was how it in no way felt like I was playing a low-budget game. It’s spectacularly polished in every way that matters. Penumbra? Impressively frightening, but often a little clumsy. Pretty much every review of note mentions this. It’s weird that you’re latching onto these two games, as they’re both examples of games that have largely received good reviews, but not /excellent/ ones. And I’d say that’s probably where both games lie.

    Which renders the next question moot, but to tackle it anyway: probably would be a bad thing, yes. If we assume that reviews are primarily consumer advice, then it’s silly to advise people consume a product just because of its origins. There’ll be praise because of these, of course, but it has to be balanced. Overall, though, I’d pretty much say it is.

    What do you want out of your games? Do you want inch-perfect mechanics, or an /experience/? If you’re after the former, then to be honest, I’d still say Zeno Clash fares pretty well. If it’s the latter, I think it’s just lovely. It has its problems, but I don’t think they’re necessarily relevant to the joy of actually ploughing on further into the game. A more troublesome problem with Zeno Clash is the entirely lacklustre ending, which is what knocked it down to the low-80s mark I ended up awarding it for Resolution. Combat mechanics? Usually good, sometimes a bit frustrating, but never game-ruining, and never that relevant.

  • I think, Nighthood, you’ve hit the nail on the head, though from precisely the opposite angle. You seem to disagree with Lewis, and agree with me that the simple fact something is independent is likely to promote softer reviews.

    The difference is, I think that’s a bad thing, for the reasons stated above: we shouldn’t be punishing AAAs for taking risks, and we shouldn’t be demeaning indies by giving them an easy ride. When I was working on the Penumbra games there were so many 80% – 85% reviews which mitigated their scores with the words ‘and it’s come from such a small team’ that I began to feel I’d rather we got the scores we deserved than ones inflated by our situation.

    I can see myself in danger of getting slightly villainised here. To be clear: I enjoyed big parts of Zeno Clash, and I’m massively passionate about innovative indie games. Regardless of the objective qualities of that game, it’s for this reason that I object to the sort of underdog scoring I believe is rampant.

    There’s two topics for discussion here:

    – Are indie games scored higher because the teams are perceived to have fought adversity?

    – And if so, is that a bad thing?

  • Nighthood

    This article really seems like a quick way to get views from the big sites. Personally, I think that yes, we should be more forgiving with small indie games like Zeno Clash, as they have been ambitious and succeeded in what they aimed to do. If you went to see a small independent film, which although it was very well written and made, had obvious CGI, would you say “I saw a big budget movie yesterday and the effects were much better, therefore this film sucks”? You can’t compare a team with lots of people to an indie developer, it just isn’t fair.

    Also, I disagree about Zeno Clash being bad, it’s the most fun I’ve had in ages, and kneeing people in the face then shooting them with fish guns never gets old.

  • No, I don’t think that’s right. But equally, I don’t think it’d happen.

    You’re assuming that the experience of playing – and hopefully enjoying – a game is born out of specific mechanics which can be assessed as factual facets. That in itself is skewed – I thought Zeno Clash’s combat was excellent, with one or two tiny, barely-noteable flaws – but even if you can decide objectively what works and what doesn’t, it’s not always going to affect the game-as-wider-experience stuff. Zeno Clash is a total joy-of-discovery game. It’s a total, garbled, backwards, nostalgic narrative: proper Metal Gear Solid fare, and people lap that up. Anything else, for me, was just peripheral.

    You’re completely within your rights to disagree with that. And with anyone else who’s played/reviewed/created/whatevered a product. Completely doesn’t mean anyone’s right, though – even with opinions on how well certain mechanics work.

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  • I see where you’re coming from. Certainly reviews should be subjective, but I disagree that there is no objective element to a review, and it is on this level that I’m challenging the reviews – clearly my opnion on subjective elements such as the art style is less interpretable as fact.

    Things like visual fidelity, polish and combat system flaws are quite objective things, however, which is why I’m surprised some sites were happy to ignore such things.

    In principle, though, I’m not so much attacking Zeno Clash as I am the general movement towards being easy on indie games. No matter how much you may love the game, do you not think it would be hard to argue that the same product released by EA would have received lower scores? Is that right?

  • John Smith

    i made the comment about subjective reviews and scored because ive never seen a review site that is as arrogant as to claim that its review scores are objective, scores are subjective Eurogamer says it doesn’t have a checklist.

    If deus ex for instance was scored like that it would get 4’s.

  • John Smith

    some major well scoring games have inconsistencies, and faults, the opinion of whether they are detrimental to the game, or not, is however an subjective opinion. It seems that many reviewers feel that despite the faults the combat is still really quite good.

    This makes the author of this article guilty of confusing his own subjective opinion with what he would regard as fact.

    The author also ignores the fact that cheaper games get scored better based on rrp.

    Eurogamer in its mission statement on scoring and policy also states that all of its reviews are subjective not objective.

    Also as an addendum quoting ign as a site you would look at will make many people question the veracity of this article as everyone knows ign is one of the softest review websites on the internet.

  • Thanks Hugor.

    I’m not convinced though… I notice that IGN fails to even mention most of the combat design flaws. I can see that you could argue I’m just being overly critical of the game, but these flaws are demonstrably there (as picked out by other reviews), so it seems strange IGN is so comfortable ignoring them almost entirely. I think some rose tinted glasses are in play for anyone who thinks this game is anywhere close to the level of polish of a AAA.

    Regardless of that, I think we’d be hard pushed to claim indie games get the same treatment as AAAs at review – IGN practically points that out in your excerpt.

    I like Bit-Tech’s conclusion:

    “However, creativity doesn’t cover all flaws, so just because you get to fight a blind bounty hunter atop a beached whale at one point doesn’t mean that Zeno Clash is offering anything truly new.”

    “8/10” – WTF?! 😉

  • Hugor

    I completely disagree. If you look at the reviews some say that the melee combat is actually better than the combat of Riddick. Several reviews say it is the best implementation of melee in a FPS so far. Sure… it’s not perfect… but doing melee in FP is hard.

    From the reviews I’ve read, the game is actually being compared a lot to AAA big budget games in graphics, gameplay and style… something almost no indie game has ever had to do in the past. There have been a lot of badly reviewed independent games before. This is just not one of them.

    And you have to consider one last thing: The game is being launched with a price of $20. Less than half a AAA title. You cannot do a 1 on 1 comparison between a $60 priced game and one that costs $20.

    I think the IGN review sums it up pretty well:

    “It’s safe to say that Zeno Clash wouldn’t work as a big budget game from an established studio; it’s far too different from convention, which would mean it’s far too risky a project for them. But it’s a perfect example of how some of the best and most original ideas are coming out of independent teams that have talent and passion and can take risk because they’re not gambling with tens of millions of dollars. Zeno Clash sticks with you long after you play it, and that’s a compliment many games aspire to have associated with them.”

  • If you’ve played it, let me know your thoughts…