GameLab and PlayFirst, creators of last year’s hit Diner Dash have bloomed early this 2006 with Plantasia; a blend of action, strategy, and a light coating of fairy dust, hovering neatly around the surprisingly frantic world of horticulture.

Fairy-candidate Holly has one final test to pass before she earns her wings: she’s got to grant one wish. Stumbling upon the recluse and overgrown gardens of a despondent landowner, she finds opportunity and sets about to clean things up a bit. By tidying the gardens and restoring all of the fountains to their former glory, she’ll complete her goal and be entitled to all that comes with fairydom.

There are four primary concerns to playing Plantasia: Dig, Plant, Gather, and Protect. These are all carried out using only the mouse, in as simple and effective an interface as could possibly have been designed. No matter which of these tasks you’re performing, it only takes a single click. Every one of them is explained, with example, in nice, easy steps.

In tending the gardens, the first thing you’ll need to do is dig. With your trowel in hand, you till the land by clicking on dirt patches around the game grid, or clear ground by smashing up any rocks that get in your way. Once the holes are dug, you’ll be planting a wide assortment of seeds that will sprout into one of 35 bright, colorful, grinning flowers. Some patches of ground are circled with “fairy dust”, and you’ll find that the right flower planted in these spots grows faster and larger and earns you more points.

Once a plant has bloomed, you’ll click on it to gather the flowers, scoring Mana points and starting it growing again. If a row of similar plants have all bloomed at once, you can gather them with a single click for a bonus. Points are spent buying more seeds, upgrading your tools, and, ultimately, restoring the garden’s fountain before time runs out.

The world seems to have it out for your buds, sending drought and bugs and weeds after them in endless streams. Your tool set expands to fight the menaces, with a watering can to refresh ailing flowers (or make healthy ones grow faster), a can of bug spray to knock out the insects, and a weeding tool to take care of the leafy menaces. In this portion, Plantasia plays like so much Whack-a-Mole; where you try to combat whatever comes your way, but remains entertaining thanks to its elegant, one-click interface. There’s no need to switch tools – just keep a sharp eye out for thirsty flowers and hungry invaders.

Were tools not enough, Holly’s got a set of fairy powers that can be purchased which will summon rainstorms, eliminate all the pests on the screen, and transport planted flowers from place to place. More plants, bugs, and spells are introduced as the game goes along meaning that you are always discovering new things.

Plantasia offers solid fifty levels of play here, with a good strong difficulty curve that shook keep you tense (a sometimes odd contrast to the serenity one might expect to come with the gardening theme). There is also a Challenge mode, in which you harvest flowers-not to build statues-but to turn back the clock and see how long you can survive. Amusingly, the game also offers a screensaver mode, which converts your normal screensaver to animated scenes from the game.

If there is one thing to be said about the look of Plantasia, it’s that it is vibrant. There is color absolutely everywhere, and tiny bits of animation at every corner. There is enough variation in the look and behavior of the flowers to keep things constantly stimulating, with all of the game elements easily discernable and distinct. The game exudes the same wealth of personality that made us fall in love with Diner Dash-an excellent pedigree.

So, how does Plantasia stack up? As has been stressed, the interface is simplicity itself, and while the strategy of planting the right flower at the right location exists, the game is more focused on the quick reflexes needed to reach a drying plant or hungry caterpillar in time, giving it more of an action game feel. The size and layout of the levels, coupled with the short time you spend on each of them really limits the amount of strategy you can employ, and most of the time is spent scoring points and keeping flowers alive.

Does that hurt the game? Hardly. Plantasia maintains the right balance of quick action, bright colors, chiming sound, and ease of control that combine to make a fine example of addictive gameplay. The game is, at its core, fun. It does get nice and hard in later levels, so don’t think you’ll be strolling through this one with ease.

The sounds effects are appropriate, both thematically and functionally. Bugs chirp before entering the screen, giving you both atmosphere and warning. Flowers make a strange, dusty sound before wilting. The music is a light-hearted bassoon and strings affair, perfectly suited for the natural scene. It sometimes seems almost too serene, considering the essentially frantic nature of the gameplay, and the game might have done more with its sounds to accentuate the action-oriented nature of scoring bonuses and making combo chains of flowers. But if that’s the greatest of complaints one can file against it, Plantasia is certainly a winner.

PlayFirst has delivered early this year with a rousing success in Plantasia. Even if you wouldn’t normally step into the glittering shoes of a fairy princess, check this one out.