The way that human beings are drawn to pretty game visuals is like the way magpies eye shiny things; they just want to take them home and look at them some more. Clash: Artifacts of Chaos isn’t so much pretty as it is utterly visually arresting, with a painterly effect brushed across some of the most bizarre and imaginative character designs you’ve ever seen. While your brain struggles to work it out, you’ll certainly need to take it home and look at it some more. While we can’t bring it back quite yet, we were able to go hands-on at Gamescom, and talk to designer Carlos Bordeu about the game’s ongoing development.
Clash: Artifacts of Chaos is the third title set in the Clash universe, following on from 2009’s Zeno Clash and its sequel. Set in the enigmatic world of Zenozoik, Artifacts of Chaos sees you take on the role of Pseudo, a distinctly ugly mutant who’s just as distinctly well-versed in martial arts combat. He finds himself an unsuspecting guardian to the Boy, a tiny, bird-like chap who has healing powers, and possibly holds the secret to everything that’s going on.
Carlos explains, “It’s a narrative-driven story, exploring the world with this little owl character that’s on [Pseudo’s] shoulders at all times. He’s a father figure to him. They’re running away from Gemini, who craves the power of the Boy.”
Clash: Artifacts of Chaos is a Souls-like, so you’re going to spend the first few hours of the game getting battered by the standard enemies while you find your way with the combat system and start to upgrade Pseudo’s abilities. Zeno Clash fans may have a surprise to discover that combat begins in third-person, before moving into first-person once you’ve dished out enough damage to a particular enemy.
Combat feels weighty but with plenty of immediacy, with Carlos telling us, “It’s a fighting game. What makes it like a fighting game is the cancelling system. If you notice when I hit the enemies I flash white – this is very similar to games like Street Fighter where you can cancel from an attack into a defensive option like a dodge or a different attack or special.”
He continues, “It’s not like many of these third-person games where you commit to an attack and you’re basically stuck in the animation and you can’t do anything. In this case you can cancel out.” Testing this out, it certainly helps to make combat seem more immediate and free-flowing, keeping you ahead of your opponent, and able to react in the moment to attacks that are coming your way.
As with most Souls-likes, Clash: Artifacts of Chaos boasts a branching network of pathways and structures, with different areas feeding into one another once you’ve passed certain criteria. During our hands-on we faced off against a tough boss character – we were reassured upon losing that it would be virtually impossible to beat him at this stage – and if we had got past him, a previously seen gate would then open up, shortening the route through this area. Talking about the Souls-like gating, Carlos simply states, “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it”.
Coming back to the game’s visuals, Clash: Artifacts of Chaos really has to be seen in motion to get the full effect, with the game’s cross-hatched pencil filtering a remarkable touch that completely alters the appearance of the game. Carlos tells us, “there’s two very important things that we’re attempting with the art style. One is the visual component of the scene, the plants, the cuts, we’re not just going to SpeedTree and selecting a regular pine or bush, everything is custom-made by the artist. Everything is very unique and strange in this fantasy world.” You can see that in the demo we played, with utterly alien trees and shrubbery extending out of the landscape. It’s truly fantastical.
He continues, “The second thing we did entirely new for the game was the rendering. We use Unreal Engine, but it’s heavily modified in order to properly communicate all the lighting and everything. It’s more of a hand-painted, pencil style.” This pencil crosshatching makes the image almost shimmer as you move through the game, adding to the otherworldly effect that the designers have created. It’s somewhere between Sega’s Valkyria Chronicles, and the focus attacks from Street Fighter IV, and when it’s paired with the most imaginative design you’ll see this year, it’s clear that Clash: Artifacts of Chaos is going to stay with you for a while.
It doesn’t stop with the visuals. “One of the aspects that’s very different, very unique, is the ritual,” Carlos tells us. “The enemies challenge you to a special ritual, where they present their own artifacts. If he defeats me in the ritual he’ll spawn an additional enemy.” The ritual plays out like a tactical mini-game, with dice rolls determining the outcome. You have a set of artifacts that you can use to affect the dice roll, shifting the game in your favour. While it’s an optional part of the action, the change in tack is refreshing, and it’s the kind of thing that you can imagine people will become quietly more obsessed with than the combat itself.
Clash: Artifacts of Chaos is shaping up to be a truly unique action-adventure game, and one that could rewrite the way developers approach game design.
Clash: Artifacts of Chaos releases on the 9th of February, 2023 for PC, PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X/S and Xbox One.