Pickins' are pretty slim for fans of the first-person brawler genre. You've got Zeno Clash and the Condemned games and... uh... surely there's something else that fits that description. Surely?
If you've been starved for this type of game, you'll be happy to know that Zeno Clash 2 is legit. If you enjoyed the first game, you'll be happy to know that ACE Team brought you a core that is more of the same with some very welcome tweaks to the formula.
At its heart, Zeno Clash 2 is still very much about beating up all sorts of strangely designed bipedal intelligent beings, like a pig guy and a boar guy and an elephant guy and more. Combat is deep – there are button combos out the wazzoo. Surviving is tough but manageable. Actually being proficient at this combat system will require lots and lots of practice. But seeing as how this is a game that is almost entirely about forcing you to fight, you'll get that practice.
The combat system has been beefed up a bit this time around, with the introduction of some new, exciting combos, and since ACE wants you to know about these enhancements going in you'd be smart to play the tutorial before starting the story. Zeno Clash 2's tutorial demonstrates immediately just what kind of a challenge there is in mastering combat, but it's good to have some idea of the possibilities going in.
Now, what's different? First, we have co-op. Player one will once again take control of Ghat, a skinny dude with a mustache tattooed on. Player two controls his sister, who you can otherwise summon as an AI partner in battle. The sister isn't the only computer assistance you can gain, however; there are a number of bros who can tag along with you and help you out.
The AI is a bit lacking, however. Your allies will probably each engage one foe and hold his attention while you battle whoever else you're facing, but don't expect them to do much damage. Furthermore, my allies never followed me from one battle to the next. I'd summon one when prompted at the beginning of a fight, but once we'd taken those foes down, my ally would just stand their as I continued forward. Since I'd often go through a series of fights before being prompted to summon another ally, this was pretty annoying. The moral of this story? A human partner is legit, and an AI partner is not. Sorry.
The world design has also undergone a makeover. It's still cavepunk, yes, but instead of being a perfectly linear corridor experience, now, there are world hubs to explore and sidequests to do. I'm not usually fond of sidequests, but some of these proved useful in preparing for story missions. For example, near the beginning of the game, Ghat and his sister want to break into a jail, but he's advised that if you go over that way you'll be able to get your hands on a projectile weapon to help you out. Yes, this is a brawler, so guns are de-emphasized, but being able to start a battle by firing five little rocks into your enemies' heads improves your odds of survival.
Lest I forget, this game has a story. And if you're one of those folks who play games for the story, I would assert that starting with the original game is absolutely a must. During the tutorial, you're treated to a monologue by Ghat describing the events of the first game, but you'll probably completely miss what he's saying because you're focused on executing combos.
Plus, the story of the Zeno Clash saga is utterly weird, and it becomes easy to lose track of what's going on when they through out words you don't understand. Zeno Clash 2 is not friendly to new players in that respect; ACE assumes you're up on the story going in, and so if you go in blind you'll probably be completely baffled by this strange world. That's not necessarily a criticism, as I'm very much a believer in the idea that game developers don't need to pander to new players when they craft sequel stories. Still, something more engaging than a monologue, like a five-minute “previously on Zeno Clash” cutscene, would have been more effective at getting people up to date. Too, assuming even that players of the four-year-old original Zeno Clash will remember all the nuances of this goofy universe seems unreasonable.
Lastly, we need to talk about production values. This is an attractive game with inspired design, in terms of gameplay and the world and the characters, but boy is the voice acting terrible. Problems you might have following the plot because it's weird are exacerbated by the fact that it becomes easy to zone out while the actors deadpan their lines. If you want people to buy the kind of odd crap that comes out of these characters' mouths, you have to hire people who can deliver those lines convincingly. Unfortunately, it seems as if nobody capable of doing that was involved with this game.
Zeno Clash 2 is quite the enjoyable gameplay experience, and I greatly enjoyed looking at the stuff ACE put in the game. But it's not a well rounded experience, and it ultimately feels shallow because ACE didn't properly invest in presentation. The indie spirit will take a studio only so far; if you want to tell a story, you have to invest in telling that story. ACE Team failed to do that, and so enthralling gameplay loses its context.