Based on a 1990 arcade game called Rampart, Zen Wars is a gorgeous game that mixes strategy and castle defense elements together into a meaty stew. Unfortunately, neither game type comes through particularly well, and Zen Wars ends up being more of a frustrating let-down than a successful genre mash-up.
The campaign mode does a good job of teaching you the basics. At the start of each level, you’re given three bases on one side of a river, while waves enemies march toward you on the other side. To activate your bases, you have to completely encircle them with walls. Once you do that, you can plant cannons within the walls and attack your enemies.
These actions– building, deploying cannons, and fighting– take place in timed phases. In the building phase, you’re given about a minute to place wall sections in such a way that you surround at least one of your bases completely. The wall pieces look like Tetris shapes, and they’re given to you randomly, one at a time. At the end of the building phase, any area on your side of the river that’s totally enclosed turns blue, which means you can place turrets there in the arming phase.
You can almost hear the Russian music.
The arming phase is the simplest, and you only get about 10 seconds to complete it. All you do here is spend points to place turrets in your blue areas. In the last phase, you launch cannonballs at enemies by tapping on them. Again, this is a timed phase, so you have to move quickly. The general goal is always to stay alive through all of the waves of enemies, but the specifics vary– one map requires you destroy bridges, while another has you kill approaching enemies before they reach laser turrets. Regardless of the goal, you’re in for a whole lot of tapping.
The problems in the game run fairly deep. In the building phase, the controls for dragging and rotating the Tetris-like wall pieces aren’t all that reliable, which makes for a frustrating experience right off the bat. Factor in the omnipresent timer, and it can become a recipe for hair-pulling stress. Also, the actual fighting portion of the game is very shallow. You only ever have enough time to kill a handful of enemies, and all you’re really doing is tapping the screen. The primary variable here is how many cannons you’ve placed, which determines how many cannonballs you can launch before waiting on them to reload.
But the biggest bummer about Zen Wars is that the enemies knock down portions of your walls and you have to rebuild them every single turn. Redoing something you’ve already done is almost never fun in a game, and here it’s even worse, because the random wall pieces they give you almost never fit correctly into the spaces you want them to go. After a while, every time we came back to the building stage– which can happen a dozen times in a single level– we wanted to stop playing.
The game isn’t all bad. In addition to the campaign mode, there’s a survival mode and a multiplayer mode, which adds up to a lot of content. Multiplayer mode allows up to three people to compete locally or online through Game Center, and it even allows voice chat. Multiplayer matches are a little more exciting than the campaign mode, but we haven’t had any luck finding random people to play against online.
Additionally, the graphics are downright gorgeous. You can zoom very far in or out at any time, and no matter your viewpoint, the graphics pop. Also, the game’s story is told through comic book-style panels between levels, and it’s full of genuinely funny lines.
The good stuff doesn’t matter much in the end, though, because the overall experience simply isn’t very fun. There’s too much repetition and rebuilding, too many aggravating timers, and not much in the way of rewards. Possibly with an update or two the developers can turn the ship around, but as it is now, we can’t recommend Zen Wars to anyone who isn’t already a fan of Rampart.