Clash: Artifacts of Chaos Review
Part art project, part action game, Clash: Artifacts of Chaos looks like nothing you’ve played this year. Or, probably any other. But there are lots of games oozing style but lacking substance. Where does Clash: Artifacts of Chaos land as an action game, aside from its art?
Clash of Styles
The first thing you’re going to notice about Clash: Artifacts of Chaos is its art. You can’t help it. Riotously colorful, its characters look like a meeting of the minds between Maurice Sendak, Hieronymus Bosch, Earthworm Jim, and the Oddworld games. It has a cel-shaded, cross-hatched look that I’ve never quite seen before. The main character is an Oddworld-esque figure by day and a wooden skeleton by night. Animals and other characters are a likewise strange and fascinating mix of organic bits and bobs. Imagine everyday animals rendered by inept MidJourney prompts. The brightly colored world bursts with interesting, bizarre, and intentionally ugly stuff to see.
If you’ve played developer Ace’s Zeno Clash games, you’ll have an idea of Clash: Artifacts of Chaos’ “punk-fantasy” surreal aesthetic, and its gameplay as well. The game’s narrative is classic hero’s journey stuff. You play as Pseudo, a warrior who unexpectedly becomes the guardian of The Boy after the owl-child’s grandfather is killed. Pseudo’s trek around the game’s semi-open world is driven by his need to defeat Gemini, Artifacts of Chaos’ Big Bad. Naturally, the true nature of The Boy and his importance is another narrative hook. The story isn’t necessarily surprising, but there’s enough strangeness in and around it to make it interesting. There’s quite a lot of voice acting and it’s mostly well done.
Less coherent is the game’s introductory few minutes, laying out some basic mechanics and character choices. In general, Clash: Artifacts of Chaos does a pretty inadequate job of explaining a lot of things or glosses over them too quickly. A prime example is The Ritual, an optional dice game that Pseudo plays with enemies before they fight. The Ritual is obtuse in its rules and dependent on RNG instead of skill, so I inclined to skip it whenever possible.
Clash of Form and Fun
Although Pseudo eventually has access to weapons, his main allies in combat are his fists and feet. While there isn’t a character creator, you start by picking one of three fighting styles, based on punches and kicks. After the briefest of tutorials, you’re dropped into the game.
You learn as you go. You discover, for example, that Pseudo can only breach walls of thorns in his night form. This lets nighttime Pseudo open paths for daytime Pseudo to explore. Resting at campfires allows you to pick which part of the day/night cycle you want to be in. If you die and do a corpse run, you jump to day Pseudo. This day/night mechanic figures into some environmental puzzles. It’s not a new idea at all, but the two-phase character is a relatively unexplored mechanic in games.
The open-ish world provides lots to see and do. There is combat, of course, and gathering materials for consumables. There are several quirky NPCs to meet and greet. The game is in desperate need of a real map, quest markers, or something to guide the player toward the next objective. It’s too easy to wander. The in-game map does the bare minimum of showing the player where Pseudo is in the broadest sense.
The Requisite Soulslike Elements
Clash: Artifacts of Chaos wouldn’t be an action game in 2023 without at least some Soulslike mechanics. Primarily, these come in the form of dodges and rolls, blocking, and the level of challenge. Your camp has some practice machines for you to hone your timing skills. This must be in recognition that the block mechanic is nearly impossible to use effectively. Coming directly from the uber-tight parry system of Wo Long, Clash’s blocking felt absolutely terrible.
Overall, combat ranges from pretty enjoyable to feeling broken. Pummeling a surreal monstrosity with bare fists and kicks can be, well, a kick. On the other hand, giving an enemy an opening is usually fatal. Landing a series of hits fills a meter, which allows Pseudo to switch to first-person view and access different combos. There are some unexpected and unpleasant difficulty spikes, often side by side. In the arena of Soulslikes, Clash: Artifacts of Chaos is up there in terms of challenge.
The Ritual is an added combat mechanic that introduces an optional dice game between Pseudo and his enemy. Using artifacts collected in the world, the combatants play a game of chance in which the artifacts’ buffs and debuffs duke it out. The results of the Ritual carry over into the real-time action. There are a couple of problems. One, the rules and moves of the game are terribly explained and obtuse. Second, the RNG underpinnings make it frustrating. Lastly, the resulting combat modifiers can make winning nearly impossible.
If Looks Could Kill
Clash: Artifacts of Chaos doesn’t look like any other game, and there are several settings to modify it even further. You can change the size of the cross-hatched shading. Make the lines small enough, and the game looks like a cel-shaded cousin to Borderlands. Make them bigger, and suddenly the game looks like primitive wood-cut cut art. I guess in a nod to a colorblind mode, you can play the game in black and white. Combined with the cross-hatch shading, it can make Clash: Artifacts of Chaos visually fatiguing and hard to read. The musical score by Patricio Meneses is excellent, and the environmental sound is understated but effective.
Artifacts of Chaos feels like a small-team game and comes with some associated technical issues like crashes and truly egregious load times and stalls on PC.
A spiritual successor to the Zeno Clash franchise, Clash: Artifacts of Chaos preserves and extends those games’ trademark weirdness. Clash: Artifacts of Chaos takes some chances and adds some interesting mechanics to the action game formula. Not everything works, unfortunately, and the game can be striking, engrossing, and frustrating in equal measure. I loved the game’s singular art direction, day/night mechanic, and more, but the combat is a mixed bag. Clash: Artifacts of Chaos is almost, but not quite, worth playing for its art alone.
***PC code provided by the publisher for review***
- Fantastic art
- Some interesting mechanics
- Good voice acting and music
- Combat can be fun
- Poorly explained mechanics
- Difficulty spikes
- Load times are glacial