Zen Bound

Zen Bound

Written by Randy Kalista on 3/26/2009 for iPod  

Never before have the elements of stone, wood and rope braided together in a more perfect union. Even though this is developer Secret Exit’s debut title on the iPhone, Zen Bound is assembled with the artistic fortitude of master craftsmen at the height of their powers.

The main menu screen is a Japanese Cherry Blossom branch beset with wafer-thin, string-hung planks representing the levels proper; the blossoms themselves bloom as signifiers of level completion; and rice paper lamps initially sit dormant but are warmly lit with a yellow glow, serving as trophies for completing multiple levels above the minimum requirements.

The premise of Zen Bound is as beautifully restrained and self-reflective as its eponymous meditative practice. With a thick strand of twine, the player manipulates a determinate length of cord in order to bind a wooden sculpture. The string that you wrap around the sculpture simultaneously lays down a small boundary of paint, eventually coating the sculpture in color as you round the string around the object. (The pictures these provide are worth a thousand painted words.)

The sculptures themselves are often of animals and are paired with a metaphorical namesake representing the concept that you’re binding. Some are perfectly obvious, like the carving of a well-heeled dog called “Obedience,” while a remarkably profound instance labels one whale sculpture as “Tranquility” … with that same whale reappearing a few levels later--this time with a harpoon driven into its side--called “Greed.” Repetition is not the watchword here, however. The premise is consistent, but the various sculptures render every encounter, every insightful puzzle, dazzling and freshly-picked in presentation.

Don’t be surprised for even a moment if these puzzles begin to reveal, curtain, inspect or even dislodge certain aspects of your character. A game like Mass Effect might present you with ethical conundrums, a game like Fable may unlock curious possibilities, but a “game” like Zen Bound reveals more about you than any Commander Shepard or Sparrow ever could. It readily, eagerly transcends into metagame territory--if you allow it, of course--having the ability to set off chemical, physical and spiritual reactions within yourself. No, Zen Bound doesn’t have the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything, but it does provide a reflecting window, which is above and beyond the scope of so much interactive entertainment today.

Even though video game soundtracks rarely seem to warrant mention, the down-tempo, alternative arrangements by Finnish group Ghost Monkey are exceptional by any standard. Hints of trip-hop and turntablism, along with indelible percussion and arid melodies drape the backdrop in polymorphous soundscapes, and teasingly punctuated by the tang of traditional Asian instruments. As if the gameplay wasn't stellar enough, the musicianship orchestrated throughout is at once gritty and serene, crystalized and fluid, calming and kinetic. The duality is delicious and the songs are as listenable as anything else currently residing on your iPod.

Zen Bound was developed by Secret Exit and published by Chillingo on March 9, 2009. It can be found here on iTunes. The version reviewed (the current version) is v1.1, 38.0 MB in size, and has a list price of $4.99 when this review was published.
Zen Bound is the crown jewel of the iPhone, and is decidedly--due to the need for sometimes-concise two-fingered manipulations--an experience that could not exist on any other currently-existing platform. As a transcendent whole, it's a dexterous marriage of philosophical thought, sculptured aesthetic, and tactile discovery.

Rating: 9.5 Exquisite

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.

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About Author

Randy bought his way onto an underground rap compilation in jr. high, lettered in marching band, dropped out of business school, got a sharpshooter ribbon in the U.S. Navy, nabbed a B.A. in English & Writing, then entered the workforce as a corporate buyer. He's played video games the whole time. He lives with his wife and daughter in Oregon. View Profile

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