One square, two square, red square…red square.
There’s a growing tendency towards abstract, single-serving gameplay that is beginning to define the casual gaming space. As the ultimate renditions of pick-up-and-play, entries like Hundreds, Mosaique, and Blendokuhave dropped shiny gems and cutesy creatures for the sake of simplified, streamlined, and perfected puzzle mechanics. Although not a genre definer alone, Color Zen is a worthy addition to their shapely ranks.
Your goal in Color Zen is, not surprisingly, quite simple: change the color of your screen to match the color of the level’s border. The screen will change every time two same-colored shapes collide, which causes the shapes to explode and paint the background whatever color they were. While this concept starts off slowly, asking you to slide a pink ball into a pink square to match the goal of a pink border, the challenge ramps up quickly.
As the stages progress, a lot of small yet significant details begin to come into play. Any free-floating shapes that are the same color as a newly painted background will be lost to the background. Shapes that are inscribed within other shapes are safe from this, but can only be accessed by clearing the outer shapes first. Only pulsating shapes can be moved; white shapes become whatever color touches them; and black shapes erase whatever shape they touch, along with themselves.
Each of the six, 20-level stages in Color Zen introduces one of these concepts at its start, from white shapes to “shields” that can prevent a shape from dissolving into a same-colored background. While this creates a great variety of mechanics as you progress, it unfortunately wastes the first five levels of each stage on very basic, tutorial-esque challenges that require little thought.
Once past these beginner levels, Color Zen‘s puzzles are innovative and engaging, yet still not especially difficult. Many challenges break down to a numbers game and an ability to count backward from the border’s end goal: if you need to end on red but only have one red square, it’s a matter of ensuring that red square is left to last (along with something white). There is the occasional stumper—a level with all black and white shapes tripped me up for a few minutes—but often, it’s much easier to over-think what needs to be done than to actually fail to do it, primarily because of the elaborate mosaics created by the many starter shapes.
These mosaics are one of the shining stars of the experience, providing almost distractingly beautiful layouts at the beginning of each level. Although shapes have no bearing on gameplay—circles, squares, and triangles interact with each other equally—they are used to create eloquent designs that double as your game board. The colors chosen are also deliberate beyond solving the level, resulting in beautiful compositions of cool blues and grays or bright reds and yellows. While playing, I often felt like Tom Haverford discovering abstract art for the first time: “Each shape is its own thing, but then when it comes together, it really gives you a sense of…completion.”
The Zen aspect of Color Zen comes from both this beauty and its lack of a timer, score-keeping, or anything else that might encourage highly concentrated play. As a high-stress, easily flustered gamer, I personally prefer this approach. Unfortunately, it does reduce replay value as there’s little incentive to retry levels for faster or error-free completion. With such short, relatively easy levels—ranging from a few seconds to a few minutes for a true challenge—the 120 currently available will need to be savored slowly to make the experience last.
These levels, despite and possibly because of their brevity, make me want more of Color Zen. Its simple color-bursting mechanic provides an almost tactile response as you collide shapes, and its gorgeous mosaic layouts are cause to stop and savor each stage before proceeding to a solution, encouraging hope that a level editor will become available to allow players to design their own beautiful challenges. Color Zen is a rewarding experience from start to finish; I only wish that finish didn’t come so quickly.