There’s no activity more empowering than engaging in war, doing everything you can to embarrass your enemy. Zen Wars ($1.99) provides a fun, if sometimes flawed, way to realise your dreams as a warlord.
The game is similar to Rampart (a game that I’ve somehow never played). Each level plays as a cycle between three phases – attacking, rebuilding, and kitting out your defenses with cannons, lasers, or a device that lets you take command of an enemy fighter for one round. You first choose one of three castles to defend, and add cannons to it until you’ve reached the limit. Then, attack mode kicks in and you pelt the enemy with bullets by tapping where you want to fire. After attacking comes the rebuild phase. You are given blocks to reconstruct your base with, and expand it if you can. The difficulty comes through blocks being tetris-like shapes. If you don’t close any gaps in the walls of your castle, you lose a life (you have 3 lives per level). You have to place every block that you receive, so this phase is very much a high pressure puzzle phase. Then, you have the chance to add more weapons to your castle before you begin attacking again. You have a limited time to complete each task, adding further pressure to the proceedings.
Sadly, the game mechanic comes with a few flaws that get in the way of the experience. In the rebuilding phase, gaps in walls can sometimes only be filled with specific shapes due to the map boundaries obstructing the usage of other shapes. The shapes you need won’t always turn up in time, leading to your losing a life without any way of avoiding it. I had to restart levels a few times because of this highly irritating problem. Another issue is that the game likes zooming in and out of the playing field in between phases. Often, you need to see more of the battlefield than it zooms into, so you have to use up a precious second of attack time trying to correct your view.
Flaws aside, the game is hugely polished and can at times be a lot of fun. Before each of the seven fairly lengthy levels, a humorous comic strip narrates the thoughts of your enemy commander. The cartoon graphics extend to the action, with black outlines present in abundance. It’s hard not to love the characters and style of the game. Similarly, its audio simultaneously conjures up a feeling of the bravery of battle and the harmlessness of comic action.
I suspect that the real value of the game comes through its multiplayer mode, which can be played either globally through Game Center or with two or three local devices. I’ve been trying to play the mode for the last three days but haven’t been able to due to not enough people being online. It’s a real shame, because it sounds like it could well be the best part of the game: battling it out against other player castles as they try to destroy yours. Two or three people can play a multiplayer game, but as I say, I’ve been unable to play anyone to find with. Unless you have friends that have Zen Wars, your situation is likely to be the same as mine. Also included in the game is a survival mode, where you can essentially play through four levels again except that rather than finish after a set number of modes, they instead finish when you run out of lives. I didn’t find this mode that engaging, mainly because it just felt like replaying levels. Still, it’s a nice inclusion if you want more of the same.
Overall, Zen Wars is good, but with some tweaks it could be excellent. It has charm, high quality graphics and audio, and a good gameplay idea that is mostly executed well. Sometimes, enemies can feel a little sparse (there are often only four or five to defeat at a time – hardly an intimidating army), and a little more weapon variety would be good to have. Despite all its faults, the game is still very much worth considering.