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COMPLETE: Zen Puzzle Garden

June 24th, 2017 (10:34 am)

I picked this up from the Humble Voxatron Bundle ages ago. The point of the bundle was obviously to promote Voxatron (but not PICO-8, sadly; this was before they came out with that one.) Voxatron didn't interest me at all, but the bundle also came with three other Lexaloffle games: Jasper's Journeys, Chocolate Castle, and Zen Puzzle Garden. The latter two caught my eye enough to push the bundle into "Eh, why not" territory, and now here we are.

In Zen Puzzle Garden, you are a monk raking the sand in a giant... well, zen garden. The gameplay is a combination "paint every tile" quest with "you can only change direction when you hit something" controls straight out of every ice skating room puzzle ever. Eventually it introduces further complexities in statues can be pushed and leaves must be collected in a certain order and act as walls until it's their turn. Still, the goal is always to rake every square of the garden and then get back out safely without trapping yourself.

This game started out strong for me, with a charming aesthetic and beautiful sand graphics. Yeah, the little monk dude looks like he came straight out of an early newbie RPG Maker game, but the sand, both raked and unraked, is more gorgeous than it has any right to be. The soothing riffs as you make moves and the "Puzzle Complete" tune are suitably... well, zen. In the earlier parts of the game, this was something I could not only enjoy, but relax while figuring out the solution. For someone with anxiety issues, this is always a nice bonus.

Those last few rows of puzzles, though. Whoof.

Remember when I played Splice and then had that problem that I needed a better word to describe? I never really found a term that jumped out at me but... that issue. (Here's someone complaining about it happening in Cosmic Express, for reference, which kind of makes me feel better knowing it's not just me.) It happened in Splice, and unfortunately, Zen Puzzle Garden ended up going in that direction toward the end as well.

I was talking with [personal profile] xyzzysqrl about this the other night, and I think the best way to explain it is that I get overwhelmed and can't keep up when puzzles become too open. Puzzles can still be hard, but as long as they give you some sort of clue what you're supposed to do, I'm okay. I can work with that. Hell, it's actually pretty fun to work with that! For example, take this later level from Hanano Puzzle 2:

(For reference: blocks bloom flowers when they touch same-colored existing flowers. They bloom in the direction printed on them, so that red block with an upward arrow on it, once it touches a red flower, would turn into a 1x2 piece consisting of a block on bottom and another red flower on top. Movement is sort of Yoshi-style swapping controls; adjacent blocks can swap places with each other, or you can move one block along by continuously "swapping" it with the empty space in front of it. The goal in each stage is to make every colored block bloom.)

Once you have a good handle of the rules and how these puzzles work, you can look at this screenshot and sort of work backwards. The only way to get that blue block to bloom is to move it one space over to touch the flower next to it, which means that there needs to be some sort of solid surface plugging that hole so it won't just fall off the ledge when you move it. Given the layout of that area, it looks like the only way to do that is to have the upward-pointing red block slide underneath that low ceiling and then bloom upward when it touches the flower on the ground. That, in turn, means that you need to find a way to move the upward-pointing red block from its perch in the upper left corner there all the way over to that lower-right area, clearing that gap in the middle (blocks can't exactly fly and, short of blooming shenanigans, there isn't an easy or convenient way to lift them again once they're on the ground,) all without having it touch any other red flower and blooming prematurely before it reaches the one below the blue block.

It's a tall order, and it's definitely a tricky puzzle (this is a Qrostar game we're talking about) but you at least have that goal, you know? You can see what you're supposed to do, so the trick is just figuring out how.

Compared to that, Zen Puzzle Garden is far more open, and ultimately I do not think that is a good thing. I didn't mind or even notice this at first, because the earlier puzzles are easy enough...

Push the statue down just enough that it's between the rocks, turn the movement from that into sectioning off the top and sides. The only real trick is remembering the "previously-raked areas count as walls" rule so you can bump against your own work to get that dip in the bottom center there.

That's fine. That's all well and good. It works, and it's even pretty fun! But then later on you get things like...

What in the everfuck.

What... I can't... I'm sorry but there are just too many directions this puzzle could possibly go for my mind even to process where to start. Every one of those statues can be moved somewhere (they can be, but maybe some of them are fine where they are, who knows) and the only real overall goal you have is to come up with some sort of configuration that lets you rake every square. This makes it next to impossible to tell whether any given solution is on the right track.

Let's say you push that statue in the lower right corner up and then to the left, to slide it in between the two stones in the upper right corner. Then, later, you seemingly paint yourself into a corner and run out of valid moves. Is that because you're just not seeing the right solution for that last part? Or is it because there is no solution, your very first move was a fatal mistake, and you've been searching fruitlessly in a doomed timeline this entire time?

For the record, I'm pretty sure this is the kind of puzzle design logic that turns Roberta Williams on.

It's that lack of confidence when puzzles get too big and open and out of control that regrettably kills the final portion of this game for me. I don't mind difficult puzzles--I like difficult puzzles, even--but I have to at least know I'm on the right track. Otherwise, I tend to miss things because I assume getting stuck later on means I must have messed up earlier (even when I actually haven't) which is far more frustrating than fun.

Fortunately, Lexaloffle has hints and solutions on their own site, and needless to say I started relying on those pretty heavily toward the end. As it turns out, the very last puzzle ended up having a perfect example of the exact point I'm making: Four hints in, the board looks like this. Once I got that far, filling in the sectioned-off areas on the top were easy enough, but something very interesting happened in that three-tile-tall strip along the bottom there.

There is, of course, a trick to winding yourself around those rocks and putting that statue somewhere less in the way, all without creating any dead ends. It is somewhat sneaky and not immediately obvious. I was stuck for a while even after getting the board to this state, just trying to figure out how fill in that bottom part. And you know what? At that point, it was fine! I knew for a fact that there was a way to do it, because the hint said right there that the board was in fact supposed to look like this, so anything beyond that was just some hidden answer I wasn't seeing. Eventually, I found it. I actually felt pretty clever and proud of myself when I did. This is, in fact, what puzzles are supposed to feel like.

Meanwhile, with how stuck I got just on that one section, I know for an absolute fact that, had I tried this level unaided, I would have assumed that getting the board to this state was obviously wrong. I would have fiddled with the bottom for a bit, concluded it was clearly impossible if you make the top look like that, and then I'd be stuck forever trying something else from the very beginning, never knowing I incorrectly wrote off the right track as a dead end.

So, yeah. In the end, Zen Puzzle Garden is the kind of game where the bottom third of the final puzzle is a fun and appropriate challenge.

This is a cross-posted entry that originated from http://kjorteo.dreamwidth.org/394256.html.