iPhone gamers have been talking about Secret Exit’s Zen Bound for almost six months, in tones alternating between hushed reverence and messianic fervor. This kind of anticipation is practically unknown in our community. People wanted this game the same way console gamers ache for the next Halo or Grand Theft Auto–before they really even knew what it was, or how it worked. As it turns out, the hype was entirely justified: Zen Bound met and exceeded every single one of our outsized expectations. It is a fascinating game, a transcendental work of art, and a bold statement in favor of the creative singularity that is the App Store.
We have detailed Zen Bound’s gameplay in a previous hands-on, so we will keep our explanation brief. The object is to wrap wooden statuettes in string as thoroughly and efficiently as possible. There are 51 objects to wrap in total, and they are separated into two groups: the Tree of Reflection and the Tree of Challenge (a third tree will appear in a later update). Each tree is decorated with tags representing the statues, which are either carved in the form of animals or abstract shapes.
After wrapping an object, you are graded on how much of its surface area you managed to cover. 70% coverage earns you one flower, 85% gets you two, and 99% is good for all three. Your progress up the tree is regulated by how many flowers you cause to bloom. You will often have to revisit previously completed levels and perfect them to move up to the next batch of tags.
Zen Bound has many amazing attributes, but its touch controls stand out on top of everything else. They are flawless. Pinching the screen allows you to rotate an object around any axis you choose, while swiping rolls it up in string. It requires no real thought or effort at all to position the object however you like’”it literally feels like second nature.
Threading the string into tight crevasses and crannies does take some skill, but anyone will be able to do it with a bit of practice. The game feeds you as much string as you need to do the job, and it keeps it nice and taut, so you can easily control its path and see what you’re doing. The string behaves exactly the way you’d expect it to, too. You can wrap it around a corner, and friction will keep it in place while you reorient the object and start turning it in a different direction.
Zen Bound publisher Chillingo has alerted us to the impending release of Zen Bound’s 1.2.1 update, which will include a new set of levels. These levels will be attached to “The Tree Of Nostalgia,” and they’ll be themed appropriately–Childhood, Old Days, 50s Sci-Fi and Retro Gaming.
Further, Chillingo tells us that update will fix a few niggling gameplay issues:
- Paint spread from rope will be smooth and continuous
- Silly bug with ‘Previous’ displaying the wrong value changed
- Level beginning says ‘Play’ instead of ‘Continue’ if the save game had 0% coverage
- Save game issues hopefully addressed
- Ability to hide the in-game progress display (i.e. play “full-screen”)
Rope interpenetrating with objects reduced
Zen Bound is one of our favorite games of 2009, and it’s great to see that developer Secret Exit is still at work polishing it up and adding new content. We’re feeling nostalgic already just thinking about wrapping up that teddy bear…
We’ve been playing a Beta version of Secret Exit’s upcoming spatial puzzle game, Zen Bound, for the last week or so. We can’t wait for this game to be finished, because we think it has the potential to be even better than SPiN!
Helsinki-based Secret Exit seems to like making games that involve free rotation of 3D objects. This was the main mechanic in SPiN, and it appears again at the center of Zen Bound, which uses a similar two-fingered control scheme for rapidly flipping, rolling, and turning stuff. One difference in Zen Bound is that you now have complete, 360 degree control over how the object moves. It’s no longer in 90 degree increments.
Another big difference, of course, involves the object of the game: you’re wrapping the object in string, instead of trying to slot it into a silhouette. As you turn the object, the string automatically pulls taut, so you have very fine-toothed control over where it’s going. This is useful for threading the string into narrow crevasses or other hard-to-reach areas. When the string encounters the surface of the object, it “paints” the area with a texture to show that it’s been covered. The objects all take the form of wooden statuettes, and the dynamic application of these textures looks extremely cool–if you lay down some string and then decide to pick it back up to place it elsewhere, the texture will lift off along with the string. When you’re ready to end a level, you touch the string to an “ending nail,” which ties it off and sends you back to the level select screen.
Zen Bound takes its Zen theme seriously. Each level has a one-word name accounting for an aspect of Zen practice, like Solitude, Obedience, Humility, and Habituation, to name a few. Meanwhile, the level select screen takes the form of a tree adorned with tags and Japanese lanterns, where each tag represents a level. There are three different score thresholds for each level: painting 70%, 85%, or 99% of an object earns you one, two, or three flowers, which bloom on the tree after the level’s completed. The first two scores aren’t usually very difficult to hit, but earning 99% can be quite challenging, because your string increasingly gets in its own way. New groups of levels open up when you earn a certain number of flowers, allowing you to gradually climb up the tree. It’s a nifty visual metaphor for the patient nature of Zen meditation.
The game’s strikingly dark visuals are very cool, but our favorite aspect of the presentation is the sound design. Zen Bound has been billed as a “chill-out game,” and we think that’s a pretty accurate label; ambient gongs, chimes, and wind blend into the down-tempo shoegaze music to create a truly relaxing, meditative experience.
Zen Bound has some polishing yet to go before it makes it to the App Store–many aspects of the build we played weren’t final, including the level count and textures–but it’s already a very unique and addictive play. In our view, this Beta proves that Secret Exit’s success with SPiN was no fluke; this is one of the more talented developers around.
Jani Kahrama–a co-founder of Finnish indie developer Secret Exit–dropped us a line about the firm’s upcoming iPhone debut, Zen Bound.
Kahrama describes Zen Bound as “a chill-out game where the challenge is to wrap rope around wooden sculptures.” Check out this YouTube video for a better idea of what he’s talking about:
Kahrama also told us that the game will feature 20 minutes of original shoegaze music, courtesy of Finnish downbeat electronica act The Ghost Monkey. This thread on Secret Exit’s forums notes that the game will be available on consoles, Mac, and PC, too.
We are now too relaxed to continue writing this article, so we’ll get you more details on Zen Bound, as well as Secret Exit’s other new games, as soon as they become available.