I don’t know when my love of puzzle games really kicked in, but somewhere along the way I went from ignoring/loathing them to relishing the challenge weirder kinds of puzzle games have to offer. Zengrams is an amazing puzzle game, its puzzles appearing brutally difficult at first glance, but always proving to have maddeningly simple solutions. In fact, a better title for this game would have been “Your Stupid Meat Brain Overcomplicates Everything: The Game,” and Zengrams is absolutely recommendable because of its tendency to use your oh-so-human penchant for unnecessarily elaborate solutions against you.
Gameplay and the turn limit
In Zengrams, your goal is to fit all of the colored pieces together within the dotted lines so that they color in the space. Any empty space means you solved the puzzle wrong, as does any excess color still present outside of the lines. You’ll often start with too much to fit within the dotted lines, however, which is where color mixing comes into play. If you put a blue square onto a yellow square, you’ll have a green square. However, if you put half of the blue square onto half of the yellow square, you’ll end up with three rectangles, one blue, one yellow, and one green. That’s the beauty of Zengrams: when colors are mixed, they become their own objects that can be moved, so you’re forced to mix colors to split your shapes so that they fit within the lines.
Not only that, but moving two same-colored blocks so that they touch (but don’t overlap) connects them into a single object, as does mixing colors to create a single-colored whole. This is kind of confusing to explain in words, so I’ll use an example. In the screenshots at the bottom of this review, the fourth picture is of three rectangles: pink, purple, and blue. One’s natural instinct would be to move all three separately into the dotted lines, but the more streamlined way to do this would be to move the blue rectangle onto the pink rectangle to make a purple rectangle that automatically connects to the already-present purple rectangle, giving you a single purple piece that can be moved into the dotted lines.
In that example, the puzzle would be solved in two moves. Had you tried to move all pieces separately, however, you would have required three moves. This would have been a problem, as each puzzle has a turn limit. Each time you move an object, that counts as a turn, so you’re forced to be economical with your movements in order to solve the puzzle in as few turns as possible. Since the puzzle with the rectangles has a turn limit of 2, combining the colors would be the only way to progress.
Overcomplicating things, taking back moves, and potential irritations
When combining colors, you’re bound to create all kinds of awkward small triangles and other difficult geometric shapes that subtly hint at the fact that you’re doing it wrong, and yet there’s a kind of stubbornness that kept me trying the same thing over and over again until I finally put my pride aside and tried something else. Figuring out the simplistic solution and comparing it to what you initially thought was the solution is really the best part of the game, that moment where you’re forced to realize that you’re really more of an idiot than you probably thought. That’s what makes this game so uniquely enjoyable for me: more often than not, it’s you rather than the puzzle that’s making things difficult, and it’s not until you let go of your gut-feeling solution and begin to think outside of the box that the actual solution becomes apparent.
Luckily, you don’t have to start from scratch if you make a mistake. Each move gets stored in the boxes at the bottom of the screen (which also tell you how many moves you have to solve the puzzle), and tapping on the boxes will take you back to that move. There are no limits to how many times you can take back a move, so you’re free to experiment however you want, which is nice. However, one thing I didn’t like was that there was no way to return once I had gone back to an earlier move, so tapping too far back accidentally meant I had to remember exactly what I had done. To be fair, puzzles aren’t exactly behemoths and are always manageable enough to make this a bit of a non-issue, but it’s still something that I found to be an irritation once or twice while playing.
Something I’d consider to be a bigger problem is that the dotted lines aren’t always apparent, especially toward the later stages where there are a lot of different pieces scattered about. In some situations, I found that I couldn’t tell where I was supposed to be moving pieces until I had actually started moving them out of the way. Some darker lines would have been appreciated toward the end, but again, puzzles are small enough to where moving a few pieces out of the way to figure out where the dotted lines are isn’t much of a real problem so much as an irritation.
Length, graphics, and music
Zengrams is a simple game, but it’s also devilishly difficult at times (in fact, many people contacted the developer about level 36 being impossible, only to have them respond with a video showing the amusingly easy solution) and completely lacking in in-game hints, so it’s difficult to say how long it’ll ultimately last you. Some puzzles frustrated me for hours on end and weren’t solvable until I had taken a break and detached myself from what I wrongly believed to be the solution, but there are only 70 levels in the game and it only took me something like 3 days, lengthy breaks included, to make it through the whole thing without looking up the answers online. Those who become frustrated and look up the answers will be done even faster than that, and there’s zero replay value unless you take enough time away from the game that you completely forget the puzzles. At the same time, the game only costs 2 dollars, so whether that’s worth it or not for you will come down to how much you enjoy puzzle games and/or games that challenge your normal way of thinking.
Graphically and musically, Zengrams is incredibly minimalist. Not only are the graphics virtually nonexistent save for the grid background, dotted lines, and colored blocks, but the music is a relaxing single track that plays throughout the entire thing. Somehow, it all works despite the lack of variety in both departments. One nice touch that deserves to be called out is that the game can be played by the color blind thanks to the inclusion of a mode that changes the colors, presumably making them more discernible to the color blind. Granted, I don’t know exactly how all that stuff works, but I’ve heard from some who are color blind that they had no problems with the game.