Sunday, April 5, 2009

Perspective Bias: Zeno Clash (Tactics)

This isn't really a complaint, but one of the ... challenges of GDC is that there is simply so much to see and do. I spent the majority of my time in talks and panels (deciding which of those to attend was work enough), which meant I didn't have much time to check out the IGF Pavilion. I was only able to sneak down there with Steve just before a session on Wednesday, where we checked out Mightier and Zeno Clash. I had already decided Mightier was awesome, with its interaction between the physical world and the game world, but was less sure about Zeno Clash.

I'd seen the trailers, etc. for Zeno Clash and while its non-traditional fantasy art direction was very interesting, I didn't have much interest beyond that. I'd becoming increasingly soured on melee-based first-person games (I think Dark Messiah was the guiltiest culprit of late), and with such a small team, I was a bit skeptical that Zeno Clash could manage all the complexities of creating a compelling first-person game while making the melee combat enjoyable.

My concerns were alleviated by a single five-second screen that appears before combat starts.

Before each combat, there's a "Versus" match-up screen that shows the player and their opponents. Here's an older screenshot; in the GDC version the colouring made the match-up even more explicit. It's basically the kind of match-up screen you'd expect in a 2D fighter. I hadn't seen this before and it really was one of those lightswitch moments. I got what Zeno Clash was and wasn't attempting to do.

The problem was that I had made some assumptions about Zeno Clash there were wholly incorrect. I had assumed it was a traditional first-person action game, that focused on melee with lighter ranged combat (with crazy weapon at that, a la the fish gun). I expected fully fleshed out environments, perhaps linear, maybe more open world. But Zeno Clash isn't that game and it's not trying to be that game. It appears that the entirety of the game is the first-person arena combat.

In short, I thought they were making Final Fantasy VI, but they were really making Final Fantasy Tactics. It's a series of connected, but independent, combat encounters. That single versus screen immediately shifted my expectations. By focusing exclusively on arena combat (and the standout art direction), Ace Team can make those parts of the game sing. Some of them were actually at the booth discussing it. I asked one of them (maybe Andres?) about the FF Tactics similarity and he immediately and enthusiastically acknowledged it.

Of course, this is speculative, since Zeno Clash is not available for about another month. But I've never had my perception of a game altered so dramatically in such a short time. I think many games struggle to convey their aesthetic goals (which is a broader topic for another day). It's interesting and worth study that Zeno Clash has managed to convey this, at least to me, with just a single screen that isn't even interactive. I went from ambivalent about a melee-based first-person action game to very excited about a first-person arena combat game.

Plus, if exploding rats are really a weapon in Zeno Clash, I'm sold.

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