So, did you know that 'zen gaming' is totally a genre now? It's true, I read it on a fact sheet from Sony a while back. This genre includes flOw, Flower and... oh... er... some wee PC/iPhone games no-one talks about? Anyway, it's totally a Thing. The latest addition to this burgeoning, blossoming, emerging, not-at-all-niche genre is The Undergarden from Vitamin-G, published on XBLA, PSN and PC by Atari.
It's all about making flowers grow. That's flowers, not Flower
s. But, you might reasonably assume that the team at Vitamin-G have played both flOw
(when you look at the names together, you can see what they did there) from That Game Company. Like the aforementioned games, The Undergarden
is not so much about challenging your pants off as it is about making you feel relaxed and fuzzy inside.
You play as a little sprite-y, pixie-like fella. Your aim is to traverse subterranean spaces, making the odd little flowers that grow there bloom. The set-up is a lot like Gravity Crash
, with multi-way scrolling through caverns presented to you in a 2D manner. Unlike Gravity Crash
, there is no penalty for hitting the sides, nor for pretty much anything else in the game. You go around nudging pods of pollen so you can gather the stuff up and pollinate the weird underground flowers by simply flying past them.
Standing between you and this modest goal is a series of physics-based puzzles of the you-can't-get-through-here-because-something's-in-your-way variety, mostly solved by shifting various sorts (floating, heavy, exploding etc) of fruit around. You can also stimulate the flowers with little musician blokes scattered around the levels, complementing the ambient soundtrack as you go.
These puzzles are not, it must be said, the most demanding of obstacles. Pushing the grey fleshy logic-operating part of your brain to the limit wouldn't be very zen, would it? The learning curve is also very gentle and there's not a lot going on to test your reaction times. It's all very relaxed.
And that is, actually, fine. The puzzles are there, primarily, to keep you moving through the 20-odd levels and keep you interacting with the game world. That's the focus ? the gentle pleasure of exploring and, more generally, being there
. The luminescent mood lighting (I'm pretty sure Vitamin-G saw Avatar
) and the soft ambient music massage your senses and, after an hour or two of play, you're wondering whether this is how a foetus feels. Playing The Undergarden
is basically like wrapping yourself up in a warm duvet and listening to The Shins.
I've got to say, I wouldn't mind the puzzles being a little
more challenging and, therefore, a little more stimulating. Somehow, though, Vitamin-G is always one tiny step ahead of letting things get boring. There's a fine line between calming and mind-bleedingly dull, after all. But just
as you're starting to get a little fed up with serenely floating around doing the same sort of stuff, a fresh twist on the look of the levels or a new sort of obstacle is thrown your way.
While looking at thumbnails of screenshots won't do The Undergarden
justice, it's very easy on the eye. Nothing groundbreaking ? Gravity Crash
style level layouts filled with luminescent mood lighting ? but purdy nonetheless. Click on one of the screens to see it at full size ? it's worth it.
Basically, The Undergarden is the gaming equivalent of an hour in a nice warm bath with scented candles and all that nice stuff. It will not set your world on fire. It will not change your ideas about what can be done in a videogame. It will make you go, 'oh, I can see where that bit came from'. All of the above is perfectly fine, because sometimes you need a break from shooting people in the face, and The Undergarden provides it admirably.
SPOnG Score: 83%
Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go reclaim my masculinity by shooting someone in the face.