Release Date: 17/11/2010
Played On: PC
Available On: PC / iOS
Time Played: 6h 30m (still playing)
Progress: About 60% Complete
Developer: Secret Exit
Publisher: Secret Exit

An exercise in simplicity and elegance, Zen Bound 2 is a beautifully realised puzzle game. It's attention to detail and minimalist mechanics serve to keep this sequel evergreen as technology grows. It goes to show that if you do something right, you rarely need to change it later.

I first encountered the original Zen Bound as a mobile game, which is a compliment as I tend to avoid mobile gaming with a passion. However there are always exceptions to the rule and Zen Bound was a high quality game that utilised the mobile platform well. Its puzzling gameplay suited touch controls without diminishing the experience. Not a lot has changed with Zen Bound 2, as it expands on the original and maintains the quality its predecessor.

The basic idea is that each puzzle features a wooden carving of anything from animals to abstract shapes. Each carving has two nails fixed at certain points and it’s the player's job to wind a rope from one nail, around the carving, then tie it off on the other nail. By then end, you want to have as many surfaces of the carved object covered in the rope, which stains the wood with paint as you go.

The game is entirely mouse-driven (on PC) as it essentially replaces the touch controls from iOS. Sometimes this can be a lazy way to port a game, but for Zen Bound 2 it works. Your inputs only serve to rotate and shift the carving, there are no other inputs required. By clicking and dragging with the left mouse button you rotate one axis; using the right mouse button rotates another. With these simple inputs you are able to move the carving in such a way that you effectively wrap the rope around each shape in the most efficient way possible.

To make things challenging, each puzzle has a limited length of rope, so you're unable to just wind inefficiently until all surfaces are covered. What's more, as the puzzles get harder, the carvings get more complex and present difficult areas to cover. It takes planning as you may need to get into a gap at some point, so it's important not to wind rope across the gap in a way that would block it.

Some puzzles even feature multiple carvings that are not connected to each other. These can be intertwined with each other in a way that will have you weaving back and forth as you try to cover each separate object with the same piece of rope.

Eventually there are carvings with pins stuck all over them, presenting further challenge, but a benefit. If you manage to hook the rope around a pin, a bubble of paint will be popped, covering a large radius around it in paint. This escalation of challenge and difficulty can really make you exercise some brain power, as there is often no clear path to the end.

Being a mobile port, there are three levels of completion for each puzzle, and each level opens a flower on the level select. This is similar to the common three-star rating that mobile games have to try and create an element of replay-ability. The first few stages (each containing a number of puzzles) were easy enough to get 100% coverage, but I've quickly slipped in later stages to an average of about 80% completion. The difficulty curve is smooth, but presents a decent challenge, especially if you're trying to get 100% coverage on all puzzles.

I really enjoy Zen Bound 2, primarily because of the puzzle mechanics and the simple challenge of winding rope around a variety of shapes. However, the real kicker for the game is the level of polish that sets it apart from other mobile games.

The graphics don't need to have a lot going on, but what's there looks great and serves the overall ambience of the game well. It's definitely calming to be working your way through trees, opening flowers, lighting lanterns, and manipulating wooden objects with rope. There's a good feeling of tension as you pull and twist the rope around each carving.

To enhance this there is a great soundscape to accompany the harmony of the experience. Simple ambient sounds make up the soundtrack; punctuated by that tight creak of rope as you pull it tighter. Sometimes the rope can't hold on to a corner and snaps out of place with a jarring crack. Mixing all of this together with the tactile visuals of wooden shapes, fibrous rope, and soft blossoms really presents the personality of Zen Bound 2's style.

I haven't finished playing it yet, but I know I will someday. It's the kind of game that I'll open up for a puzzle when I want to wind down, or empty my mind. There's a meditative pace to the process and the tactile feel of the presentation can be quite grounding to experience. 

The Zen Bound games rely on you to approach them as quiet puzzles, instead of mechanical tricksters. On one hand they're most certainly casual, but if you let yourself get lost in the zen of it all, you just might find a deeper, more meaningful moment.

I like to talk about how games can achieve something that other mediums are incapable of, but I'm not sure if Zen Bound 2 is an exclusive gaming experience. Instead it emulates a reality without the trappings of a distracting environment. You could play the same puzzles with real wood and rope, if you could find the materials and time to get started. As a game, the process is the same, but everything you need to partake is presented to you without effort. There are few distractions, as you are transported to a serene and minimalist place that allows you to focus.

Turning the wooden shapes and winding rope is all you need to think about as you work your way through Zen Bound 2's puzzles. It's a beautiful and relaxing experience, that might just let you slow down and contemplate the universe, while playing a game. There are so many experiences available in gaming, so it's nice to have one that only asks you to take your time and think. That's all; just think about the rope, as it winds around the wood.
 

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