Much like its predecessor, Zeno Clash 2 is a game about proving that melee combat can be more than just something to fall back on when you're out of ammo. You don't just punch and kick, but dodge an incoming blow and ram a fist into your enemy's unsuspecting head. You charge with an elbow slam. You grab a foe to pummel and throw into the clutches of pain. All in a world whose idea of concept art must have been a Post-It note saying 'Buy more drugs'.
Zeno Clash 2 picks up where the first left off – in a state of confusion. The main character is Ghat, 'son' of a child-stealing bird monster called Father-Mother, on a quest to help free the aforementioned from a golem trying to bring... uh... a seemingly reasonable sense of law and order to the world? It makes about as much sense as anything else in this poorly told tale, which looks great, but usually sounds like the chirping of crazy people. The plot does allow for more fighting, however, and lots of it.
The combat is immensely satisfying, putting a solid thump behind your solid thumps, even if the combos are fiddly enough when used against a training dummy, never mind enemies actively fighting back. It's a brutal combat style that worked great in the first game, and unsurprisingly does so here too. It's arguably the best first-person melee ever, bringing a little Punch-Out! into a gloriously crazy fantasy world.
The catch is that while the overall world design – and fighting a couple of guys at once – can be put together, circled and labelled 'Things Zeno Clash 2 Does Really Well', you're left with far too much that it doesn't do well, or at best does adequately. When battles scale up to taking on crowds, for instance, which Zeno Clash 2 loves to do, you simply don't have the situational awareness to enjoy the same sense of flow. While it's possible to mitigate this with another player in co-op, the AI companions are practically useless. The result is that instead of focusing on the technical joy of fighting – which you do get against individual foes – you're too often stuck flailing in a scrum.
Areas that are technically improved are still often lacking something. Guns are now scattered around, but mostly useless. A couple of new toys, such as an explosive charge fired by pointing at the sun, are more interesting, but tend to be fiddly to use mid-battle. The most notable change is that the levels are now open, although only to a point, with little to actually do in them except wander to the next fight and be frustrated by some clumsy, bolted-on RPG mechanics. Linking skill boosts to totems on the map rather than direct progression, for instance. Or quests to find allies who then refuse to join Team Facepunch purely because you've not spent points on Leadership.
Zeno Clash 2 is a classic example of bigger not being better. Most of its new ideas aren't bad, and many are good directions, in theory. They're unsatisfying, though, and the attempts to build the dumb brawler at the game's core into something bigger just highlights how tight its limitations remain. First time around, raw novelty was enough to make the experience feel special – but this sequel needed to expand on that. In losing focus, it's lost much of the charm.