A game without a point hits the iPhone and is well worth the wait

Posted by Christian Zibreg

Chicago (IL) - Imagine a game where you have to wrap a 3D object with a rope to
achieve set coverage before advancing to the next level. Sound stupid? While it sounds very odd on a paper, just like all great ideas you have
to see this one to believe it. Zen Bound is that game, and it's really something.


SLIDESHOW:
Zen Bound screenshots
(10 pictures)

Note: Page 2 has YouTube video of game in action.


Zen Bound has been one of the most
anticipated iPhone games of 2009 -- the ultimate calm and meditative
puzzler that pairs a unique idea with flawless execution. What's more,
it trains your mind while being fun. Zen Bound is also gorgeous to look
at and makes great use of iPhone's accelerometer sensor. On pair
with the likes of Edge and Rolando, but with a new twist, Zen Bound
takes puzzlers on the iPhone to new, uncharted territories.

When
Steve Jobs first took a prototype iPhone in his hands and touched its
screen during the January 2007 iPhone introduction, the crowd went
wild. To many of us, it is this perfect interaction between a human
finger and the user interface that still amazes us the most. Since
then, many applications have taken advantage of the iPhone's many
sensors, like an amusing iSteam.

App Store games, however, are fully exploiting sensor capabilities to
elevate otherwise dull mobile gaming experience to new heights. In
fact, most iPhone games owe their playability to a creative use of accelerometer sensors. Paired with a clever idea and nice graphics, some
iPhone games are well worth the money and went on to become big hits,
like Ngmoco's Rolando.

In short: a game of rope and wood

Secret Exit's Zen Bound, published by Chillingo,
is difficult to describe. Like the best iPhone games out there, Zen Bound
combines a unique idea with superb technical executions and innovative
use of controls. Basically a game of rope and wood, Zen Bound has you
rotating a piece of rope around various wood and stone objects
suspended mid-air, and all in 3D. I know what you're thinking, but give me a moment to
explain why this precious gem has already been awarded first prize in the Excellence in 3D category at the IMGA awards, and why it ended up as a finalist in both Best iPhone game and Audio Achievement categories at the IGF Mobile 2009.

When
you're wrapping a rope in Zen Bound, you are also painting the object's
surface where the rope touches it. When you paint a preset percentage of
an object's surface, you advance to the next level. The excellent control
scheme relies on dragging with one or two fingers to rotate an object
or spin it radially. To control where the rope is held, you simply
rotate the handset. Such combination of finger and tilt controls feels
natural and completely blurs the line between portrait and landscape gameplay
orientation as it is constantly in flux. There are no time-limits so you can fully focus on the
task at hand. You are only bound by the preset rope length in each
level but this actually stimulates your mind to look for a shortest
painting-route to set records and get bonus points.

Gameplay: Uniquely captivating

Such a design also extends longetivity
and promotes such a mindful way of playing that it will have you getting back to
already finished levels to improve upon your score, but don't get me wrong
-- a high score is not the goal of a game like this that wants to be
enjoyed at a slower pace. Instead, Zen Bound challenges you in subtle, clever
ways, without attacking or forcing you. You will be surprised with how a
simple task like wrapping rope around wooden sculptures can become
surprisingly complex.

There are 51 levels in total that take far more
than a few hours to finish, and more levels will come in future updates.


TOUCH AND TILT CONTROLS
Controls combine dragging with one or two fingers to rotate an object or spin it radially and tilting the handset to control where the rope is held

Read on the next page: Game modes, Technical execution, Final conclusion and YouTube video of game in action


Game modes: Two trees to climb up

There
are two gaming modes to choose from: Tree of Challenge and Tree of
Reflection
. While Tree of Reflection focuses on animal 3D shapes, such
as birds and whales, Tree of Challenge challenges you with more
complex, albeit abstract 3D constructs. Depending on the paint coverage
that you achieve, you are awarded with up to three flowers for the
completion of a level that you need in order to advance to the next
level. To get three flowers, you are required to cover 99% of an
object's surface with paint. And the way the flower system works is
ingenious.

Levels are represented by
mysteriously-shaped symbols hanging off the branches of an upwardly
winding 3D tree. Every now and then a lantern appears in between a
series of these objects. In order to advance to levels above a lantern,
you first have to light it up by collecting a set amount of flowers
collected -- you guessed it right -- by finishing levels bellow a
lantern. Sometimes, if illuminating a lantern requires more flowers
than you have collected by finishing all the levels up to that point,
you must then re-visit some of the levels to improve your score to get an extra flower here and there.


TWO GAMEPLAY MODES
Zen Bound offers two distinct gameplay modes: Tree of Challenge, with abstract 3D models, and Tree of Reflection that features animal-shaped objects like birds and whales.


Technical execution: Flawless victory!

Rarely has an iPhone game looked this good. Beauty, care and polish oozes from every angle. Secret Exit's Mikko Mononen, who did the original game concept and coding, was previously lead engineer for Crysis,
and his experience shows in every aspect of the game.

The stone and wood textures of the 3D
models look stunning, with ambient lighting that throws moody object
shadows against superb backgrounds. Photographed material gives objects
a splendid hand-made quality, amplifying the design inspired by totem
poles and Mexican wood sculptures. A tree which represents your progress
between levels reacts when you tilt the handset with lanterns and
tags that hang swinging realistically. It is nice touches like this
shows the extra care that went into the title.

When
you launch a game, you are notified that it is designed with headphones
in mind and it's hard to argue: An original musical score and sound
effects (created by Ghost Monkey) take maximum use of the device's stereo channels, with binaural
sound processing that only headphones can do the justice. Sampled creek
rope sounds complement bass, strings, a metallic teapot, wind, water
and many other sounds recorded separately from live instruments for the
musical score. Both the musical score and sound effects perfectly complement
the shiny graphical game presentation, rendering a sense of mystery and peacefulness
without distracting you from thinking in the process.


GORGEOUS GRAPHICS
Gorgeous backdrops, atmospheric lightning and soft shades cast by an object make this one of the most graphically-convincing iPhone titles to date.


Conclusion: Well worth your money

One user who rated the game with 1-star and wrote an accompanying App Store review summed it up nicely: "I
thought this would be cool but all you do is wrap string around wood."

Indeed, Zen Bound is not for everyone, but it will appeal to most casual
gamers looking to kill a few minutes. It's easy to pick up and come
back to time and time again later. Puzzle-solvers and others who just want an addictive
high-quality game will also find it attractive. In fact, you'd really have to try it to see if you like since you've never seen a game like this before.

Zen Bound is in the league of Ngmoco's Rolando (App Store link) in terms of creativity, execution and innovative use of controls, and the simplicity of Mobigame's Edge (App Store link), along with its addictiveness and uniqueness. It is a must-have well worth
the money, and one of the most impressive titles we've seen taking iPhone
gaming into new, uncharted territories. In addition, it's one of the best
puzzlers we have seen to date that trains your mind at a slow pace,
without frustrating you or taking the element of fun out of the
equation.

Zen Bound is priced at $4.99 and is now available for iPhone
and iPod touch (App Store link).
Versions for PC, Mac and game consoles are also planned. Those who
purchase the game also get a free download link for a 320Kbps track
from Ghost Monkey's Zen Bound soundtrack album.

YOU WON'T BELIEVE YOUR EYES
Zen
Bound challenges you to wrap a rope around mid-air suspended object to
cover its surface with paint. This ingenious idea is combined with
great use of both touch and tilt controls, resulting in unique
meditative experience. On top of that, Zen Bound features perhaps most
convincing graphics we have seen on iPhone to date, with super shading,
immersive sound backdrop and moody tune.

(No video? Watch it on YouTube!)