It never ceases to amaze me that developers can keep finding new and interesting ways to re-invent three-in-a-row gameplay. ZenGems, a simple yet addictive Asian-themed puzzle game from FreshGames, happens to be a particularly spectacular example.
Like all good puzzle games, ZenGems is a deceptively simple concept that offers a high degree of gameplay depth and addictiveness. There are almost 200 levels to explore in total, all of which challenge the player to think creatively and come up with new strategies for overcoming obstacles. One of the key ingredients in ZenGems‘ success is that where puzzle games can start to feel like a grind after a while, ZenGems really does live up to its creator’s name of feeling as "fresh" on level 35 as it did on level 1.
There are actually two distinct styles of play offered in ZenGems, but I’ll start by talking about Adventure mode since it’s the one with the story. One day the boy Hoshiko discovers that the medallions of virtue have been stolen from all the temples in the land. With the help of his grandfather, he must recover them from the Yama-O-Rakas who have used their magic to hide them in puzzles. By solving each puzzle, Hoshiko earns a piece of a medallion, and gradually wins back the sacred artefacts one segment at a time.
ZenGems takes place on a grid filled with various colored balls and gems. There’s a launcher at the top of the screen that you use to drop balls down any of the columns in the grid (if you’ve ever played Connect Four, it’s the same idea). You can right-click to swap between the ball currently in the launcher and the next one in line. When three or more balls of the same color touch either vertically or horizontally, they disappear, and whatever’s on top of them falls down to fill in the spaces.
The goal is to clear all the gems from the board by breaking them, which happens when balls are cleared underneath causing them to fall. A gem will break outright if it falls two or more spaces, but will only crack if it falls one space, then break the second time it falls.
The Yama-O-Rakas are constantly pushing up new rows of balls to from the bottom of the grid, so you must not only worry about breaking all the gems, but also keeping the levels under control, because if a ball gets pushed out of the grid, it’s game over.
You’ll also encounter balls or gems that have been trapped inside cages; to free them, you’ll have to create matches that incorporate the caged piece. Blockers are impenetrable obstacles that can only be destroyed by special Fireballs.
Fireballs are one example of the power-ups you’ll see in ZenGems. There’s also the ColorBurst ball that changes surround balls to its own color, and the EnergyBall, which shoots down a single column and destroys all like-colored balls.
The most significant power-up, and the key to advanced strategies in ZenGems, is the PusherBall, a special ball with an arrow pointing either to the right or to the left. When it lands on something (either a ball or a gem), it nudges it out of the way in the direction specified by the arrow. You can use the PusherBall in a variety of ways, including moving a ball into position for a match and pushing gems off ledges to smash them. Often the game will throw you twists, like only dropping Fireballs, or dropping balls of certain colors which forces you to use PusherBalls to move other balls into position for matching.
Arcade mode isn’t just an afterthought secondary mode, but actually offers a whole new set of levels with different a completely different strategy than Adventure mode – in essence creating two complete games in one. Here, a portion of the grid is now underwater, and you must destroy balls until the rows have all receded below the water line. The Yama-O-Rakas are still at work bumping up rows from the bottom, so Arcade mode presents its own unique set of challenges.
A third mode, Strategy, is simply about seeing how long you can play before you choke, but the nice thing about it is that it lets you start from any of the 13 worlds from Adventure mode without first having to unlock them.
Sound-wise, there’s something extremely satisfying about hearing the crunch of broken glass as gems break, or an exciting gliss when a nice chain is triggered. The graphics hold up their end as well, with a variety of interesting effects and pretty watercolor-style backgrounds. Players will also enjoy the story in Adventure mode, which plays out as a series of highly entertaining conversations between the grandfather and grandson.
Aside from one nitpicky complaint (I found that ColorBursts looked too similar to normal balls), I couldn’t find fault with any aspect of ZenGems from gameplay to presentation. So for all the naysayers who feel the need to groan "not another match-three!" I’m happy to say that ZenGems will prove you wrong.