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The UnderGarden preview: Zen and the art of gaming


There's good news and bad news. The bad news first: The UnderGarden is not coming to PSN until next year -- while readers were excited to see it on the PS3 when it was first announced, Atari told me during a preview this week that it won't be on that platform until 2011. I asked for a reason, but they said they didn't have one to give.

It will, however, be available on XBLA and the PC this November, and the good news is that it plays exactly like we were told it would: the whole experience is very harmless, very zen, dreamy, and blissful. Atari told me that they expected it to serve as a "palate cleanser" between sessions of murderous Call of Duty and Assassin's Creed matches, and the serene little denizens of The UnderGarden seem ready to serve that role very well.

Flow and Flower were both mentioned multiple times during my short run through the game's tutorial level, and while The UnderGarden definitely doesn't seem to have the sort of design-school innovation or story arc movement that either of those games had, the feel is similar. You play an unnamed lead character (I secretly called him a "kawaii space monkey") that floats around watery levels using magic pollen to light up various plants and fruits, solving puzzles and exploring stages. The action is serene and simple -- you can't die or even get hurt in the game, and everything is about experimentation and exploration.

There are various secrets to find in the levels, including hidden gems and what the Atari rep called "musical beings," which play or hum a little tune on their musical instruments that colors the world as you move them around. Those create a nice atmosphere -- developer Vitamin G (a re-branded Artech Studios, creators of Aces of the Galaxy) has a background in electronic music, and the crisp, atmospheric tunes in the soundtrack reflect that. And of course there are environmental puzzles -- each of the 14 stages (down from 20 in the official announcement -- Atari said they had compressed some of the fluff out of the game) has an environmental theme to it, so you'll be playing with the forces like wind and electricity as you carry and float fruit and other items around to open gates and line up passageways.

If there's a concern with The UnderGarden, it's probably with the lack of difficulty -- Atari admits that the $9.99 game can be "rushed through" in about four hours, though of course going for 100% completion will take much longer, and there are in-game leaderboards for more replay value. The early puzzles I saw weren't super tricky, either. Even by the end of the game, the producers say they're only aiming for a "medium level" of difficulty, so if you're the kind of player who needs a real mind-teaser, you probably won't find one here.

But then again, that's kind of the point -- the game also offers a local co-op mode with stress-free gameplay, allowing two players to float at their own pace through the colorful levels exploring and playing without losing lives or points. The UnderGarden is a game that lets you just relax and enjoy it for what it is, and there are certainly players out there looking for that. The question is: Are you one of them?

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