June 15, 2024
Set in the Zeno Clash universe, Clash: Artefacts of Chaos is a quirky and approachable soulslike that's greatly rewarding. The Finger Guns review:

I’d become over confident. After playing Clash: Artefacts of Chaos for 6 hours straight, I felt like an unstoppable punching machine, felling everyone in my path. After cautiously exploring passageways in the first few hours, I was now sprinting along, hungry for a battle. Thwak. Some weird bone-bird-thing span and hit me with a staff. I’m knocked back and it whacks me again. A surprisingly large chunk of my health bar disappears. Panicked, I dodge back and reassess. 3 enemies – 1 bouncy circus chap and 2 of those skeletal birds. I’m in trouble. I dodge, punch, side dodge, then kick. It barely tickles their health bars. I parry a projectile and throw one of my own before rushing in with a multi-kick. I’m making dents. Again. Yes, it lands. It’s working. Thwak. It’s over. I’m down, but I’m smiling and exhilarated. I’ll get them next time (and I do, eventually) but once again, I’m reminded that the inhabitants of Zenozoik aren’t to be trifled with.

This is Clash: Artefacts of Chaos, and it’s a quirky yet deeply fulfilling experience.

Zeno Clash Goes Soulslike?

On paper at least, Clash: Artefacts of Chaos is a big departure from the established fundamentals of the series. The previous two games set in the world of Zenozoik – Zeno Clash and Zeno Clash II – were first person games with incredibly gratifying but mildly complicated combat mechanics. After the lukewarm commercial success of the latter, the series had seemingly gone into hibernation. The developers ACE Team had moved on to other projects, like Rock of Ages and The Eternal Cylinder. Many fans of Zeno Clash expected the series to remain dormant.

What emerges from that hibernation is a different beast altogether. While still concentrating on intense, challenging close quarters combat, Clash: Artefacts of Chaos shifts most of the action to a over-the-shoulder third person perspective. Along with that new perspective comes a slew of new design elements that will feel very familiar to those who’ve played Dark Souls or those that FromSoftware’s series have inspired. Yes, Artefacts of Chaos is a soulslike.

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Pseudo’ing Your Bit

One of the bigger departures in Clash: Artefacts of Chaos compared to its predecessors and other soulslikes is a more focused and personal narrative. In the game you play as a martial arts master that goes by the name Pseudo. A twisting bipedal twisted-up mass of ribs and muscle, Pseudo is a bizarre looking protagonist. After venturing out from his camp, he watches on as an old man and a hulking furry man-thing do battle. The old man loses the fight and lies dead. As a result, a small bird-like character called Boy is left alone and without a guardian. Before the monster can grab up Boy, Pseudo steps in.

After beating the snot out of the furry monster, Pseudo places boy under his protection, promising to take him to Gemini, the multi-headed tyrannical leader of the area, to get him help. As they arrive, the pair are welcomed in with open arms as Gemini’s trio of guards all signal their expected arrival. Gemini, as it turns out, wants Boy for her (their?) own nefarious means – but Pseudo isn’t about give up Boy without a fight.

The issue is that Gemini has an incredibly powerful artefact that means she/they can essentially one-shot anyone who steps up to her/them. So do her trio of guards. In order to stand a chance at fighting back, Psuedo and Boy need to get hold of equally powerful artefacts of protection. So, the pair set off to the 4 corners of Zenozoik in order to claim them.

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Along the way, you’ll learn more about the backstories to these characters. You’ll discover the powers that Boy possess and why they’re so sought after, visit locations important to the history of these protagonists and maybe get into a few scrapes with characters from their past.

The twisted and twisting world of Zenozoik

Delivered via cutscenes and discussions between the lead pair, the story of Clash: Artefacts of Chaos is well paced and is surprisingly impactful. The bond between Pseudo and Boy blossoms as they travel the twisted world of Zenozoik, becoming closer though adversity and the occasional quieter moments when they’re allowed to chat and joke with one another.

The prominence of the plot is the one element of the game that differentiates itself from the tried and tested soulslike formula. Almost everything else within Clash is reminiscent of or takes direct inspiration from FromSoftware’s contemporary classics. Take the world of Zenozoik that you’ll be exploring. It’s a winding web of passages that constantly loops back on itself and is filled with shortcuts which can be unlocked. You’ll need these shortcuts for when you die (and you will die) in order to prevent yourself having to go back through the same segments all over again.

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Around the world you’ll find campsites with a bonfire (yeah, a direct reference) which act like checkpoints. At these points, you can rest up in a tent to restore your health or wait until night (more on that in a second). You can also cook up a healing solution or 3 using up to 4 ingredients you find around the world. The type of ingredients you use determine the effect of the solution, whether that increases the heal amount or creating a buff of some kind, like increased resilience. There’s no recipe book for these mixtures, so you have to experiment to find the most useful blends. These flasks can mean the matter between life and death in a fight.

Punch, Kick, It’s All In The Style

The battles you’ll face in Clash: Artefacts of Chaos are challenging. It’s almost exclusively close quarters combat with the few ranged attacks available offering little beyond arms length. Every enemy in the game hits hard and has the capability of shifting Pseudo off his mortal coil. At the start of the game, you’re told that the creatures of Zenozoik are more than a match for most. It’s fortunate then that Pseudo is an accomplished fighter.

At the start of the game, you get to choose one of three fighting styles. While it’s important that you choose something that suits your playstyle, you can unlock a plethora of other styles throughout the game. If you find yourself growing to dislike your current attack style, you can switch them up at the camping grounds or at idols you’ll find dotted around the game.

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No matter what style you choose, Pseudo has a few attack types that make up his offensive offering. On PS5, pressing square unleashes a multi-hit combo, while holding it charges a stronger attack. The speed and damage dealt by this combo is dependent on the style. The boxing style unleashes a flurry of snapshot blows that chip away at an enemies health while the mammoth style, for example, is slower but deals more damage.

Accompanying your standard attacks are special attacks and dodge attacks. Special attacks are triggered by pressing triangle and are contextual on the direction you’re pressing the thumb stick. You can assign these attacks to the button presses, meaning that you can tailor the way you attack to the way you play. The dodge attacks are triggered while – you guessed it – you’re dodging. Pressing circle and pulling back, left or right will push Pseudo into a dash in that direction. Pressing square while doing so will couple this move with a punch or kick to catch your enemy unawares. There’s also a block, which reduces the damage you’ll take, as well as a parry which is incredibly tricky to pull off but leaves your enemy completely open to attack when triggered.

The final type of attack is a throw back that’ll feel welcome to fans of Zeno Clash. As Pseudo deals out and receives damage, a gauge fills. Once it’s full, you can trigger a special mode which transfers combat into a first person perspective. Here you can do the trademark punch and double punch from the original game. Hit an enemy consistently and after a short period, Pseudo will pull off a devastating and bespoke attack.

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The combined combat systems in Clash: Artefacts of Chaos result in a complex but highly customisable experience. It can be a lot to get your hard arounds at times, but it’s handled well in some simple to use menus. If you’re struggling, it often pays off to switch up your attacks to try a different style or tactic. When it all comes together, and you’re stringing successful blows together how you like, the offense of this game feels fantastic.

I Challenge You To Ritual Combat

The foes you’ll face off against during Clash: Artefacts of Chaos come in two varieties. Spread across the world are the deadly flora and fauna which will attack Pseduo and Boy on sight. They’re essentially the ‘mobs’ of the game. The other type of combat – those with sentient beings, most often against the forces of Gemini – can be challenged to a mini-game before the fight begins. This is another unique element to the game that I’ve yet to see within another soulslike.

The mini-game, called the Ritual, pits Pseudo or Boy (you can choose to let the little companion play in your stead) against the leader of the band you’re about to do battle with. Both the protagonist and foe role a set of dice onto a circular play mat that’s separated into 4 segments. Once the dice lie on the ground, you’re given the chance to use several knives which effect the numbers on the dice. One knife reduces every die in an area by 1. Another destroys both your and your opponents closest die to where you place the knife. You each get to use three knives and then the scores are tallied up.

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The aim of the game is to finish with more digits on your combined die than your opponent. Whomever wins gets to impact the criteria of a fight using an artefact. These artefacts can call in previously defeated enemies to fight alongside you, blind the enemies with a fog that blankets the battle ground or gives you the first hit in the fight, among many other things. Winning the ritual can give you a much needed advantage, especially when fighting off against big groups of enemies.

An Unusually Approachable Soulslike

Despite its challenge, Clash: Artefacts of Chaos is a well balanced soulslike that’s surprisingly accommodating for the genre. This is achieved via two aspects that are central to the experience.

The first is that the incremental RPG stat increases aren’t tied to a currency you can lose during battle, like the souls from Dark Souls, for example. Instead, Pseduo will level up as he gains experience by defeating enemies. With each level up, you’ll be granted 3 ability points which can be spent on 4 core criteria of Pseduo’s fighting skills. This will make him harder to kill and a more hardy killing machine.

Increasing the stats of your special attacks and fight styles are also tied to exploration and collectables. Dotted around the myriad corners and dead ends you’ll find in Zenozoik are collectable wicker dolls. Take these to burning stations and you can use these dolls to increase the stats of your combat abilities. This aspect of the game encourages exploration of all the nooks and crannies of the world and rewards those that scour the less beaten tracks.

Things That Go Bump In The Night

The second way that Clash: Artefacts of Chaos strikes an accommodating tone is by giving you a second chance. If (or should I saw when) Pseduo falls in battle, a second version of him spawns from the last campsite at which you rested. This version is different however. Only available at night, this version of the protagonist is made of wood and is a little hardier.

Pseudo isn’t the only thing that’s different at night. The standard mobs are wooden too. If you battle through the twisted wooden versions of enemies that stand between the campsite and where the flesh and blood version of Pseudo fell, you’ll be able to raise him from the dead. This means you’ll get a second crack at the game. Even if the wooden version of Pseudo falls, you’ll spawn back at the last campsite with nothing lost but your time.

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The wooden Pseduo isn’t just useful as an extra life. At times, progress in the world of Zenozoik will be blocked by hedges made of thorns. If the fleshy Pseduo was to push through it, it would rip him to shreds. The wooden one however? He can pass through unabated. At times, you’ve got to voluntarily choose to wake at night from a campsite in order to cross those thorny boundaries. Waiting beyond them are guardians which unlock a path forward when defeated. This day/night cycle adds yet another new idea to the soulslike formula that works surprisingly well.

Clash: Artefacts of Beauty…

Regardless of whether you’re exploring the world of Zenozoik at day or night, the world itself is a consistently gorgeous and captivating. The trademark quirky art style that was present in Zeno Clash I & II has returned here, but this time it’s far more colourful and beguiling. Landscapes can look simultaneously alien and functional with giant mushrooms covering a vista one moment to make way for a foggy swamp that Yoda might call home. This is all brought to life using a unique hand-drawn-meets-cel-shaded technique that really makes Clash: Artefacts of Chaos pop.

The inhabitants of the world are equally as bizarre. From elephant men to furry humanoid creatures, ghostly faceless performers to automatons, the friends and foes you’ll meet in the game are a constant source of creativity. They’re a mess of disproportioned limbs and features, chequered patterns and a blended up zoo that could make Cronenberg proud.

The art style of Clash: Artefacts of Chaos is complemented incredibly well by the soundtrack. As you move through Zenozoik’s numerous biomes, the music changes to match the tone of the environment. When you’re exploring a crumbling but majestic castle up in the mountains, you’re treated to sweeping, ominous but gentle melodies. In contrast, when you’re in the surroundings of a temple, thumping drums and peculiar tunes set an entirely different feel to the area.

…and bugs

Clash: Artefacts of Chaos does have some rough edges that I hope get tidied up with a patch. This includes a few bugs and glitches that can be a touch frustrating. When trying to climb down a spiral staircase in one area of the game, I managed to get snagged in the geometry of the level numerous times (yes, I died at this section often). After winning a round of the Ritual, my artefact to swing the first punch ended up spawning me within a building which left me entirely vulnerable to the group of enemies that swiftly handed me my ass. In a different fight, my artefact spawned my team mate inside some of the environment making them completely useless. In one part of the game, the prompt to climb up certain sections started to bug out, meaning I couldn’t progress until I died. A shop keeper that delivers a few story beats was interrupted by himself of all people as vocal lines played over one another. While none of the issues with Clash: Artefacts of Chaos are game breaking, they do take off some of the veneer that the game painstaking creates elsewhere.

The core experience of Clash: Artefacts of Chaos is solid however. None of the issues I’ve mentioned feel like anything that couldn’t be fixed with a little TLC and a patch. Putting them to one side, this game is an exhilarating, quirky and gratifying soulslike that’s a welcome new form for the Zeno Clash series.

With a gorgeous art style, challenging but deeply rewarding combat, an interesting story and an approachable take on the soulslike formula, Clash: Artefacts of Chaos is a welcome new form for the Zeno Clash series. It has a few rough edges that will hopefully get fixed with a patch, but despite them, this is an easy recommendation for fans of Dark Souls or Zeno Clash alike.

Clash: Artefacts of Chaos is available now on PS5 (review platform), PS4, PC, Xbox One and Xbox Series consoles.

Developers: ACE Team
Publishers: NACON

Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional code from the publisher. For our full review policy, please go here.

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