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Review: award-winning Zen Bound for iPhone

Software developer Secret Exit has launched a new game that not only has innovative puzzle-driven gameplay but makes full use of the iPhone's graphics, sound and touch controls.

A number of months ago it was confirmed that Zen Bound ($4.99, App Store) was coming to the iPhone and iPod touch. Today, that has finally come true, offering a puzzling style of gameplay that involves wrapping rope around carved wooden animals.

It may sound like a strange idea for a game, but Zen Bound has also been awarded first prize in 'Excellence in 3D' at the IMGA awards, as well as being a finalist for 'Best iPhone game' and 'Audio Achievement' at the IGF Mobile 2009. The developers also made the popular SPiN, which also involves rotating objects. So there's obviously something special about Zen Bound - and it was obviously worth a closer look.

The game's concept is simple, and captivating for that very reason. In Zen Bound, you must slowly wrap a piece of rope around a simple 3D model, staining the model's surface with paint as you twist and turn through each level. There are no time limits, as this is a game that encourages a slower pace and a more mindful way of playing.

The game offers you two 'trees' for you to work through - the Tree of Reflection, and the Tree of Challenge. Levels are represented as tags hanging from the trees, and as you unlock more levels, lamps hanging from other branches begin to light up. All these elements also react to the tilt of the iPhone or iPod Touch you're using, which though unnecessary, adds so much and shows the care that has been put into the experience.

At first, the controls can feel slightly difficult to manage. Dragging with one fingers to spin the model around, and two fingers to spin, can make the seemingly simple task of wrapping rope around simple objects quite difficult at first. But once you discover that the tilt of the phone also controls where the rope is being held, things start to move along. Within a few levels, controlling the rope seems beautifully easy as you use a very intuitive and clever mixture of the touch and tilt controls.

Because of this, Zen Bound is a game neither played in portrait or landscape mode - rather, you will find yourself turning your iPhone or iPod Touch in your hands nearly as much as the model in the game, which is either a wonderful accident or a masterful stroke of design. This may be the most well designed control system for the iPhone and iPod touch yet.

Neither does it take any hesitation to also mention that Zen Bound has what can be described as the best 3D graphics on the iPhone and iPod Touch to date. The models, though not certainly not complex, are exquisitely rendered with textures and amazing shading that —combined with the involving control scheme —can create an engrossing illusion of actually manipulating an object in your hands.

The almost excessive level of artistry that Secret Exit has poured into this game does not stop there. Just after starting Zen Bound, you are softly reminded that this game was designed for headphones as the sound of wind, water, haunting cymbals and humming chants enter the mix. The soundtrack, produced by Ghost Monkey, is perfectly suited to the game, and compliments the satisfying creaks and twangs of the rope as you pull your way through each challenge. As an added bonus, Secret Exit allows all buyers of Zen Bound to download a 320kbit version of the soundtrack.

What also deserves a mention is the Zen aspect of the game, which —while obviously permeating the rough, organic graphics and downtempo soundtrack —comes through in less obvious ways. The slow pace of the game and its entrancing control scheme encourage reflection, while even the simple titles like 'Humility' (the very first level, naturally) or 'Pride' encourage thought. The gameplay style has the uncanny effect of allowing you to both get into 'the zone' for ideal play and letting your mind wander into other thoughts.

As such, the game could very nearly be considered a must-have. At $4.99, Zen Bound has a very reasonable price for such a surprisingly engrossing and impressive experience, and with plenty to play through, it may well become a consistent favorite —as well as a great example of potential —for the App Store.