I remember seeing Zenge on the Google Play store and having no idea what it was, and like so many games I’ve bought out of curiosity, it ended up being left unattended on my phone for a depressing amount of time. All I remembered by the time I finally started it up was that it looked like a vaguely adventure-ish puzzle game, something that quickly proved to be untrue; for all its art and store claims about a “journey,” this is a pure puzzle game that shows you pictures between levels that hint at a story and journey that isn’t really there. Not that there’s anything wrong with that—puzzle games can be some of the most rewarding games out there, even when they’re a bit on the easy side like Zenge is. In fact, I’d argue that this is one of the more uniquely rewarding puzzle games I’ve played because of how well it teaches you its rules, with that being especially notable since there’s not actually a tutorial or explanation at any point. You learn by doing, and this is something other games could take a page from.
No real story, but many mechanics
The pictures you’re shown between levels have a certain sense of continuity to them (for example, in one picture a character is on a train, and they get off of the train in the next one), but are far too vague to add up to any kind of coherent story. There are all kinds of scenarios and areas depicted that are evocative, but ultimately meaningless without some kind of context. There’s a maze, weird Tetris-looking things, a world that looks straight out of Monument Valley, and artsy images like the one I’m using as a header image for this review that seems to show the character watching the sun rise or set while being trapped in some kind of box. Or maybe not; without words or any kind of context to know what the pictures are actually showing, there’s no way of deciphering what they really mean. The theory that I was leaning toward while playing, though, was that it’s some kind of metaphor for the development process of Zenge. That way, inspiration or competition would explain the random Tetris pieces and Monument Valley-looking place, and the obstacles could be viewed as being representative of the challenges of game development. That’s only a theory, though.
The game mechanics take a page from the non-story as Zenge never explicitly explains how to play it, but this manages to be surprisingly brilliant; every new mechanic is introduced in a simple puzzle to give you a handle on how it works and can be used in later puzzles. These are all designed well enough that there’s little to no frustration as you figure things out. First, though, an explanation of what Zenge’s puzzles are: basically, there are pieces on tracks, and you have to move and manipulate them along the tracks so that they end up in a designated spot. Pieces can block the movement of other pieces, however, so you have to keep track of where everything is and move things around in a certain order.
The game introduces new elements that you have to contend with every so often, such as pieces that snap together and spaces where you can rotate/flip/teleport them. Rotating and flipping pieces is fairly self-explanatory, but having the ability to combine them into one large piece takes a little getting used to because of how much it actually does and how specific the conditions are for it to work. For example, pieces can only snap together if they’re lined up to fit together like puzzle pieces, the edges that meet are the same color, and they hit each other while on separate tracks. After snapping together, the combined piece can move along both pieces’ tracks, so this is often used to get bigger, stranded pieces to where they need to go. All of this no doubt sounds much more complicated than it actually is, so consider this: all of these rules are learned without a single word explaining them. That’s impressive, and I haven’t even gotten into my personal favorite yet: switch puzzles. Some pieces activate switches, with certain tracks only being usable when all switches of a certain color have pieces that can activate them (denoted by a small colored square on that piece that shows which switches it can press) on top of them. This means you’re moving pieces to hit switches so that you can move other pieces to hit switches and create temporary tracks to move everything to the right place. Again, not a word of instruction, and yet this is all made perfectly clear by the cleverly designed puzzles that teach you the rules.
Did I mention that this only costs a dollar?
This is a strange gaming era. High-profile games that cost 60 dollars often turn out to be massive disappointments, whereas games that cost 10 times less end up being more enjoyable experiences. This is something I started to think about when I was playing Super Panda Adventures, and it’s hard to say if the lower price makes it easier to forgive the flaws of such games or if they really are superior to vastly more expensive offerings. Personally, I think it’s probably a bit of each. At any rate, Zenge isn’t doing anything to disprove my suspicion that less expensive games are proving to be the superior value. That’s not to say that it’s perfect, though. For one, it’s only 70 levels, and those go by pretty fast. This isn’t exactly the type of game that has replay value unless you come back much later after forgetting the puzzle solutions, either.
Then there were a couple of problems that most likely only affect mobile users. For one, the touch detection can be less than ideal, with the game sometimes ignoring what you tapped in favor of what it thinks you tapped. That’s a minor qualm, of course, and most of the time you’re not dealing with smaller spaces where this becomes a problem. A slightly bigger (or at least more annoying) problem is that the game closes entirely if you brush the back button. It’s a quick way to exit out of the game, sure, but for those of us with back buttons that don’t actually need to be pressed, some kind of “are you sure you want to exit the game so that you have to start this puzzle over from the beginning like an idiot” prompt would have been appreciated. The screenshot combination for my phone had my finger right next to the back button, too, so this happened more than once and sucked every time.
The puzzle in the video to the right took me an embarrassing amount of time to figure out, too, and the reason doesn’t make it any less embarrassing. See, when pieces land in the correct spot, they change color to become a part of the next picture. This puzzle starts with one piece in the correct spot to begin with, however, and it blended into the background so well that I didn’t notice it was there (and yes, it has the squares showing it can activate switches—I have no idea how I missed them, but I did). This puzzle is the only one I had this problem with, and it could be made clearer by starting that piece two spaces up and one to the left instead.
Pretty visuals, repetitive piano
I really like how the game looks. The art is distinctive, the puzzles are visually interesting and have different background gradients and visual elements that give small groups of levels distinct identities, and it does this while remaining simple enough that levels avoid coming across as too busy or chaotic despite all of the tracks and pieces. The music I’m less positive about, though. It’s not bad so much as it’s repetitive and involves a lot of piano, and after I Am Setsuna, I just can’t take that much constant piano. To be fair, one track has some guitar and there’s also synth stuff backing up the piano, but it’s still too percussive to avoid becoming irritating when trying to manage a bunch of pieces at the same time. It won’t become a problem if you use speakers with the volume turned down low, but it gave me a headache when listening with headphones.