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

  • 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.

    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.

    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.

    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 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.

    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!)