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Zeno Clash: Do Indie Games Get An Easy Deal?

By on April 25, 2009


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, and has also spent time in production.