Zen Wars In-Depth Review

Lord Evilz is making a giant land grab! It’ll take two things to stop him: lots and lots of cannons, and lots and lots of defensive walls — good thing the old sensei manning the first line of defense specializes in both. While this collaboration from subzero.eu, Liv Games and Panzer Flakes is a little light in the story department, the player will appreciate its humorous comic book-style cutscenes for the respite it gives his or her brain between intense bouts of fortress construction. The name Zen Wars (Out Now, On Sale for $0.99) may seem like a cute way of putting an Asian spin on a gameplay formula more often associated with medieval European aesthetics, but it’s also an appropriate homage to the spirit of what Rampart has always been: a test of the player’s focus and resolve.

As we reported in our hands-on preview a few weeks back, gameplay in Zen Wars consists of three phases: cannon placement, bombarding the heck out of anything that moves (plus lots of stuff that doesn’t move), and rebuilding the player’s fortifications, which crumble under enemy fire during the shooting phase. I thought the formula was pretty simple when I first got my feet wet in the game, but the more time I spent with Zen Wars, the more I realized how nuanced and interconnected all three phases really are.

While the game’s live tutorial introduces rebuilding last, this phase lies at the very heart of Zen Wars‘ gameplay. The player starts out with a nice square fort built around one of three pagodas on his or her territory, but repairs must be made with jagged pieces cooked up by a mason with Tetris on the brain. At a minimum, the player must make sure that one pagoda is sealed inside a continuous wall by the time a ticking clock runs out. A truly successful rebuilding phase is one in which additional pagodas are captured, because doing so yields the additional land and cannon-building capacity needed to overwhelm the enemy.

Lest I make it sound like Zen Wars is all block puzzle and no strategy, the player really has to think ahead of the curve during all this construction. Racing around the screen and haphazardly laying down walls to capture wide swaths of territory is great in the short run, but the zig-zagging forts that result can be self defeating. If the enemy takes out a cornerstone in an area that’s impossible to shove a new reconstruction block into, the player can go from self-assured victory to defeat in a single round. The player will become keenly aware of this risk late in the single player Campaign Mode, where enemy weaponry magnifies his or her mistakes by leaving pits and rubble that can’t be built over for a few turns. Three re-tries give the player some wiggle room in Campaign Mode, allowing him or her to continue a battle with another pre-fabricated square fort rather than start over from the first round. When re-tries are expended, they can be reclaimed later by revisiting and perfectly completing the levels that had previously overwhelmed the player.

Players with shoot-em-up or combat flight sim experience have an edge when it comes to picking off roving foot soldiers during the cannon-firing phase. However, enemies pause frequently and for long enough to leave Zen Wars perfectly accessible to casual players drawn in by the puzzle hook.

Ironically it’s the Castle Defense fan who’s most likely to feel a little left behind in Zen Wars‘ attack phase, as there are few weapons to field other than run-of-the-mill cannons (and later, big run-of-the-mill cannons). Devastating lasers and little spring-loaded dudes who can hijack enemy weaponry for a turn are also on tap, but these aren’t under the player’s direction once they’re situated, and their usefulness feels constricted to a few levels specifically designed with them in mind. Otherwise the player’s job in attack phase is simply to tap madly on targets in an attempt to pour as many cannonballs on them as possible, which might come off as a bit mindless to players who have enjoyed tons of attack options in other strategy games. This is one respect in which Zen Wars has room for growth in updates.

Where Zen Wars rebounds is in the developers’ tour-de-force approach to content variety. In and of itself, the single player Campaign Mode sufficiently mixes things up with different mission objectives, and the later levels have plenty of surprises in store. While the game’s difficulty doesn’t necessarily let up once the player’s found his or her fort-building Zen, those who want to take it to the next level can move on to Survival Mode. Here, the most difficult levels from Campaign Mode lose victory conditions entirely, and Game Center leaderboards let everyone know who had the honor of holding out longest against infinite enemy waves. And then, of course, there’s the Multiplayer Mode!