Clash: Artifacts of Chaos made me realise just how long it’s been since I’ve gone into a game blind and enjoyed it so much.
If you missed what little marketing it received and never played the prior Zeno Clash games, Clash: Artifacts of Chaos is a somewhat old-school third-person action-adventure, which mixes tactical fighting with RPG elements and a dice-based board game that can influence battles.
Weird and wonderful
After a confusing tutorial-like dream sequence, protagonist Pseudo – “the hermit” to others – awakens in his camp to the sound of distant music. He witnesses an elderly man fall in a ritual battle, defeats the murderous challenger, and reluctantly becomes the guardian of a small owl-like creature everyone refers to as “the boy”.
Coming in with little knowledge of the IP, Clash: Artifacts of Chaos is a mix of intriguing and weird. How did the world of Zenozoik, a chaotic clash of biomes, crumbling ruins, grotesque plants, and bizarre sentient creatures come to be? What is the explanation for Pseudo’s tree-like night-time form? What is the origin of the combat ritual that precedes battles between sentient foes? Why does the merciless ruler of the region want the boy?
It doesn’t take long before Pseudo reckons the best option to keep himself and the boy safe is to gear up and go after the source of their trouble.
Although the narrative pacing can drag at times, I found the story an unexpected highlight – even if the premise and several story beats are far from novel. The stoic Pseudo, always keen to avoid trouble yet confident in his abilities, makes for a compelling lead; while the curious and excitable “boy” provides the perfect foil.
There’s no shortage of in-game banter between Pseudo and the boy – interspersed with more fleshed-out cutscenes – all of which do a great job of delving into their personal beliefs, the nature of their enemy, and the history and customs of Zenozoik.
As fights rarely end with death, repeat encounters with the major villains and their bounty hunter lackeys are equally enjoyable as, despite their appearance, they’re driven by all too human vices that the wisened Pseudo has no time for.
By the One Law, I challenge you!
Now I found Clash: Artifacts of Chaos tapped into my nostalgia for third-person action games from the early- to mid-2000s – think Giants: Citizen Kabuto, Oni, Beyond Good and Evil, Fable, or even Psychonauts. Not necessarily games in the same genre, but all games that tried to do a bit of everything mechanically and differentiated themselves with an unusual setting or premise. Just like those games, Clash: Artifacts of Chaos has plenty of interesting and often compelling ideas though the experience is uneven.
Starting with the good, the combat is surprisingly technical and rewards skill. There are a dozen fighting styles to pick from: think lunging ranged strikes, close-quarters flurries, and uninterruptable double-handed heavy blows. These basic attacks all have additional variants you can trigger with a directional input after a dodge, usually with variants to get you in close or create some distance.
Supplementing these are 10 more situational special attacks like a sweeping kick that can hit multiple foes, an uppercut that counters aerial foes or those leaping at you, a flurry of stunning punches with a long charge-up time, and a teleport dash that can get you both out of and into trouble.
With the ability to cycle between two fighting styles on the fly and assign three specials, you’ll quickly realise Clash: Artifacts of Chaos is no button-masher. You’re encouraged to master move-cancelling: chaining basic attacks or specials at the point of impact or cancelling into a dodge right after a strike to avoid damage and resume your attack.
Fight skilfully and you’ll build up a meter that allows you to go into first-person view – presumably a throwback to Zeno Clash – and, if you can land a succession of blows on a target, you’ll trigger a high-damage finisher. Great for quickly removing a tough opponent from a group fight or wrapping up a desperate boss fight.
Irrespective of whether you’re going up against wild animals, groups of sentient bounty hunters, or bosses, finding a gap is rarely an easy task as enemies hit fast, hard, and punish repetition. Baiting enemies into hitting one another is a great option but even cautious play is complicated. You’ll need to avoid continuous dodging and wild swings to maintain a stamina reserve, which provides a powerful automatic guard that halves incoming damage.
Should you fall, Pseudo’s night-time form offers a second chance to defeat a tough foe but, fall again after dark, and it’s back to the last campsite checkpoint.
Reaction times and skill are obviously important and, initially, the steep challenge in Clash: Artifacts of Chaos had me worried about the lack of difficulty settings. Thankfully, there are several mechanics to aid you in the toughest encounters if you’re willing to explore and grind a bit.
Most important are the RPG elements that include a levelling system to boost four attributes; burning figurines you find throughout the world to directly enhance fighting styles and special attacks; finding crafting materials to trade for attribute-enhancing gear, powerful but limited-durability melee weapons, and ritual artefacts; and collecting animals and plants to brew into restorative potions.
Equally important – to both the narrative and gameplay – is the ritual board game that sentient creatures challenge one another to before combat. Each side picks an artefact that benefits them – such as summoning an ally, getting the first blow, or poisoning their opponent – and then dice are rolled. At that point, players take turns placing “tchaks” on the board to modify dice values – usually by flipping, reducing, or preserving values in a quadrant, zone, or along a line. It’s a simple yet engaging design, but also tough until you can invest in some new dice and tchaks.
Big, beautiful, but a little too formulaic
With a half-dozen mechanics to keep you engaged, Clash: Artifacts of Chaos offers up an impressively large world to explore – even if its hub-and-spoke design is more linear than it appears. Zenozoik’s diverse regions are perhaps best described as a series of entangled branches that crisscross each other with small offshoots all over the place hiding secrets.
With mostly natural environments and abundant invisible walls, the game could do with a better map or signposting – and it felt intimidating at first when you constantly encounter dead ends or doors locked from the other side. However, you’ll soon settle into a predictable rhythm of pushing forward toward the next campsite, exploring side paths for materials before tackling bounty hunter roadblocks, and opening shortcuts back. At night, you can explore new and old areas for unique armour pieces or tackle tougher foes to clear a path forward for daytime exploration.
This structure does have its downsides though. Although you could attempt the final boss rush early on, you’re encouraged to find four “great artifacts” – each located in a new region that’ll take you to a corner of the map, while revealing more about Pseudo, the boy, and the world.
It’s a task that makes up the bulk of your playtime and that repetitive cycle – explore by day, battle bounty hunters, open shortcuts, explore again by night – begins to feel drawn out and poorly-paced relative to the exciting opening sequences and finale.
On the upside, I never grew tired of seeing new sights and the world feels interconnected with most locations visible from one another.
Clash: Artifacts of Chaos is one of the most visually unique games, with striking designs for fauna and flora and a cross-hatch rendering technique that combines hard lines with vibrant and contrasting colours.
Every location or encounter is enhanced thanks to a dominant, eclectic soundtrack just as diverse as the cast and environments. Thumping tribal beats were always a highlight but you’ve also got punchy rock tracks for battle, haunting vocals and choir-like tracks, upbeat exploration tracks, and moody ambience for night-time excursions.
Sure, hitboxes are sometimes iffy and there’s no shortage of janky-looking combat finishers and climbing animations – but that did little to detract from the cohesively-incohesive beauty of Zenozoik.
Dice rolls and fisticuffs
Wrapping up, Clash: Artifacts of Chaos is what I’d consider a near-perfect example of what I want to see more of from so-called “AA” developers. It’s built on a budget yet the core mechanics are engaging; the story and cast are compelling; and the unique visual style ensures the world feels like nothing else.
If you’re a long-time fan of action-adventure games looking for something new, Clash: Artifacts of Chaos may settle into a predictable rhythm at times but you never know what weird and wonderful sights you’ll discover, or what hideous creature you might encounter next. On the other hand, younger (or newer games) might find some gameplay mechanics, the world structure, and janky elements feel a little dated.
Clash: Artifacts of Chaos was reviewed on Xbox Series S|X using a code provided by the publisher. It is also available on PC and PlayStation 5.
Clash: Artifacts of Chaos ReviewClash: Artifacts of Chaos Review
- An intriguing standalone story and perfect introduction to the Zeno Clash IP
- Surprisingly tactical combat with an entertaining board game twist and RPG elements
- Creative character designs, stunning art style, and a great soundtrack
- Plenty of content at a budget price...
- ...but the middle section feels too formulaic
- Some janky animations and dodgy hit detection