Gardening and video games, to the casual observer, are perhaps irreconcilably different hobbies. Getting down in the dirt to manage an ecosystem is a complete departure from twiddling a controller or mouse. Due to the assumed lack of cross-appeal between the two, few notable attempts to bring them together have materialized. Harvest Moon, is perhaps the most famous example of a game series that allows its player to develop their own garden. The complexity of the farming mechanics within that franchise is rather minimal due to its large scale, and rarely rises above rote fertilization and watering of plants. XenoBloom, much like the strange alien plants within it, sprouted up seemingly to fill a gap in the system. Similarly to Earthtongue, which according to developer Bob Saunders served as inspiration, it shrinks the action down from macro to micro and manages to harvest a great deal of depth from these seeds of creativity. The gameplay of XenoBloom is divided amongst three separate play modes, each of which share the same basic set of mechanics. Upon selecting a mode, players are given a barren biome and a short list of instructions of how to proceed. Using the shovel tool enables creation or destruction of soil, and a utility known as the “Breath of Life” bestows fertility upon selected patches. Once blessed with the potential to support life, the soil springs to action with a variety of plants. A menu allows for minute tweaking of each species of plant, including the altitude at which it prefers to grow and whether it treats its neighboring lifeforms with hostility or supportiveness. Cycles of growth pass automatically at a speed which can increased or even paused at will, and crops begin to grow depending on where they are placed and how they interact with adjacent seeds. In the normal mode, actions such as creating land consume an energy meter which can be restored by periodically harvesting fully mature florae. Observation mode serves as a tutorial in which the game plays itself while providing narration of the computer-controlled actions. This helps showcase the game’s basic mechanics in a way that proves much more effective than the vague text prompts provided at the beginning of play. Without the crucial information provided by this built-in demonstration, I am unsure that I’d have ever figured out how XenoBloom functions. It’s easy to imagine that less invested players might give up here, discouraged by the lack of immediate accessibility on display. Players who survive this initial turn-off are able to stretch their legs in experimental mode. This playstyle disables the energy meter, which encourages freeform exploration. This winds up being the sweet spot between the two other modes, with just enough guidance to allow organic learning to flourish alongside the digital sprouts. I spent the majority of my playtime in experimental mode, and was able to achieve a zen groove for several hours. By the end I was able to collect enough DNA by way of my scythe to develop several new species, which added a sense of accomplishment to the whole affair. Getting into the groove was greatly aided by the calming new age soundtrack. These smooth synthetic sounds perfectly punctuate the consistent cycle of growth, yield, and rebirth. The graphics, simple yet lovingly animated, serve to enhance the mood. There were many moments throughout my session where I found myself simply sitting and watching as my pixelated saplings seemed to thrive and intertwine in rhythm with the soundtrack. These moments count among the most satisfying and relaxing experiences I’ve had with a simulation game. XenoBloom is marred by a lack of up-front ease of use, but the intricacy of the mechanics at work makes up for it in spades. Though I would find it hard to blame players who shy away when confronted with its oblique textual explanations, I believe there’s a great deal of unique fun to be had. Much like actual gardening, it demands users to get their hands dirty and invest a great deal of effort and spirit long before the labors come to fruition. Those who possess a mind for scientific curiosity, or simply seek a laid-back outlet for their experimental impulses, should find its rewards to be both self-evident and plentiful. Grayson Hart Going from what I know, and exploring how XenoBloom might emulate real ecosystems, is there something analogous to stages of plant succession in XenoBloom? For example, are there pioneer plants that are great first colonizers, middle-succession plants like bushes, and late succession plants like trees that only are feasible once the ecosystem has matured enough? Daniel Fox As you harvest DNA from vines and such, more complex plants become available to the player. Though I don’t know how well they measure up to real ecological progression, this does add a lot of variety as well as a sense of change and discovery. Stormbringer I can’t tell what’s going on in this game? after reading this piece. Is it a garden simulator? Or is it a platformer? Or is it something else. If you told me it was a Metroid level editor I’d nod my head and tell you that’s what I thought! Daniel Fox Calling it a garden simulator isn’t far off, but I’d say the best way to describe it would be “single-screen plant biome simulator”.