Today, rather than clumping together a bunch of unrelated titles, we’re publishing two separate iPhone Gems columns: the first, found below, is dedicated to “zen” or meditative relaxation titles, two of which are games, and the other two—one paid, one free—aren’t.

We’ve reviewed iZen Garden before, but felt that it was worthy of a second spotlight due to a wide variety of post-release enhancements, and the release of a free Lite version. Released this week, the relaxing puzzle games Zen Bound and Zentomino are also very much deserving of attention, even though they’re decidedly low-impact by comparison with the action and puzzle games we feature in our second iPhone Gems piece today. Read on for all the details.

iZen Garden 1.71 and iZen Garden Lite

As we’ve accumulated applications at a rate of dozens per week,  iZen Garden ($3) from Random Ideas is a true rarity: it’s an app that we continue to enjoy many months after the initial purchase, and credit with inspiring us to care about the meditative relaxation app genre. Now iZen Garden is on version 1.71, and on the surface, it hasn’t changed; it’s still a single screen 2-D sandbox, filled with sand, that you can customize as your a miniature zen garden like the ones seen at temples inside and outside Japan. Fill it with stones, plants, butterflies, or anything from nature, activate the sound effects, and rake the garden with an adjustable rake. It can be as much like a small but real zen garden as you prefer, or thanks to a huge number of new “element” items, completely unlike one.


The good news: in the six months that have passed since our first review, iZen Garden has expanded to include eight different audio tracks, and packed in 10 different categories of elements, each with a wide variety of items that can be placed in your garden, rotated, and scaled to your preferred size. Random Ideas has also dropped the price by a couple of bucks, making the title a no-brainer purchase if you like the new free version, iZen Garden Lite, which includes ten total stones to place in the garden, the same four choices of sand, and two of the audio tracks—including our favorite, “Bells.” In our experience, the relaxation these bells bring, left in a speaker dock, alone justifies the download; the full iZen Garden also includes a wonderful Tibetan Singing Bowls track, and sampled audio from waterfalls, a brook, the ocean, and the like.


The bad news: while many of the new visual elements are as nice as the old ones, there are some—butterflies, a water fountain, curly bamboo, and so on—which don’t quite look as good or natural from an overhead perspective as the original elements. While the stones and minerals continue to look quite nice, the animation of moving items is limited and not particularly realistic, suggesting that some tweaks are needed; the raking system could also use a bit more visual polish. Additionally, as Random Ideas adds more to the title, there’s a temptation for users to add more to the garden—or unmet desire to want to save multiple gardens—and a corresponding need for the currently simple gesture-based input system to advance to deal with the layers of objects and varied sizes they demand. This is still a highly recommended app for the price, but as iZen Garden continues to grow, it may need a big picture re-examination to keep all of its elements in proper balance. iLounge Ratings (Both): A-.

Zen Bound

Though Secret Exit was known to be working on a relaxing new title called Zen Bound ($5), we had no idea that it would be published by Chillingo, a company that has been dramatically improving its iPhone app publishing reputation over the last month with a wide variety of good new games. Secret Exit’s prior title, the cartoony and colorful Spin, required players to spin around 3-D models to match them to on-screen silhouettes; Zen Bound is Spin, except you now are rotating 3-D models to wrap string around them, and the aesthetics are decidedly more mature.

To be clear up front, Zen Bound is a nice game idea. A seemingly wooden 3-D model of an object appears in the center of the screen, a string attached to it with a nail, and you use your finger to spin it around, converting its surface to “covered.” You’re given the current percentage of coverage on the top of the screen, and the surface of the object changes color to let you know what the game considers covered. If 70% or more is covered, you can wrap the string around a second nail to end the level and move on, or continue wrapping towards a “medium goal” or 100% completion. You don’t need to worry about time; the only limitation is that you’re given 50 meters of string, enough to give you no trouble beating if not mastering the earliest of the 51 levels. Two paths are offered: the Tree of Reflection, starting with animal shapes, and the Tree of Challenge, which starts with blocks.


From an execution standpoint, Secret Exit has again done a very nice job here. As with Spin, Zen Bound is almost a lesson in Western execution on Japanese aesthetics, giving its backgrounds, objects, and post-stage menus an almost reverent though subtle beauty and polish that most iPhone games to date just lack. The audio is even more impressive, with gentle, zen-like sounds that have clearly been designed for 3-D impact with headphones, and a beautiful soundtrack that honors the zen theme while injecting a little energy into the action. This isn’t an 8-bit-quality beep and bloop theme; it’s a full, multi-track score that can actually be downloaded by customers in 320k MP3 format for free. In our view, the title is almost worth purchasing solely for the work that has been done on its graphics and sounds.


But as a game, Zen Bound is only good, not great: while we commend Secret Exit on having come up with another title that looks and sounds great on the iPhone, we’d really like to see its incredible design talents used to add greater depth to the gameplay. All you do is spin objects around, tilt the iPhone—if you want—to change the angle the string is coming from, and cover the objects up; there could have been more objectives, a multiplayer mode, or other incentives to keep playing, but there aren’t. This is a decidedly “casual” title in the sense that it is designed to be playable by anyone—simplistic, really—and ultimately, it feels like Spin, only with a modestly different objective and updated aesthetics, and Spin was for all the hype a very plain game with great art. If you’re merely looking for a way to relax with your iPhone, and your standards are defined by this platform’s lower-than-typical expectations for games, you may love this title, but unless there are some significant post-release updates, don’t expect the gameplay to keep you coming back for more months from now. iLounge Rating: B+.


Little White Bear Studios released TanZen last year, and now it’s back with a similar title called Zentomino ($2). In each game, you’re provided with a 2-D silhouette on top of a sandy surface, and a collection of puzzle pieces that need to be rotated to collectively fill the silhouette without overlapping, or stretching on to the sand. TanZen was based on the Chinese puzzle game tangrams; Zentomino is basically TanZen using Tetris-like pieces, instead.


On a positive note, Zentomino is slightly more attractively constructed than TanZen: the sand now has an obvious grid at its center, recessed areas on the sides for miniature puzzle pieces to sit in, and the pieces are all gently colored and textured. There’s also a simplified interface: tap once on a block to rotate it, tap twice to flip it upside down. It’s obvious from moment one how to play Zentomino, and equally obvious from moment two or three how to control it; no detailed instructions are needed here. A relaxing zen soundtrack loops continually as you play, and there’s no timer or other pressure; you just solve the puzzles in whatever order you want from a list of 144 current options.


But this title does have its rough edges, which we’d attribute to Little White Bear Studios’ creation of an original, unpolished game concept rather than the ages old, well-established tangram theme. For instance, all of the levels have the same 12 pieces to work with, but you’re told that you won’t need all twelve for many of the puzzles. Consequently, you need to figure out how to do each puzzle based on lots of possibilities, and between turning the 12 blocks and flipping them over, there are just too many ways to start and fail. Double-tapping reveals first one, and then two correct block placement “tips” as darker silhouettes; each game should start by default with at least one to let players have some idea of where to go. And perhaps letting players know which blocks are actually necessary for a given puzzle would be a good tip, too.


At twice the price of TanZen, Zentomino strikes us as a good follow-up option for fans of the first game—and tangrams—who are looking for a greater level of challenge. Due to the game’s current structure and initial difficulty, novices may be put off by the experience; fret not, use the tip feature, and all will return to a state of thoughtful calm. iLounge Rating: B.

Earlier iPhone Gems columns are available here. The second half of today’s Gems is available here.