Alright, what is it with all the gardening simulations lately‚Ķ and sub-par desktop diversions? Helen Gardener deserves some serious raking – over the coals, not lawn, to be specific. A time management title that’s more about precisely that (figuring out how to quickly cut through an ongoing series of tedious tasks) versus, say, having fun or getting to know an intriguing heroine, it sadly gets two whopping green thumbs down.

More’s the pity: On a surface level, all the proper elements appear to be in place for success. You play the titular star, new to town and keen to build a business tending to new clients’ gardens by snipping, trimming, watering and fumigating up a storm. Each stage – divided into an individual day and set at various houses, parks and mansions – requires meeting a predefined point goal by quickly completing a given set of activities in due turn.

As an individual worker, your personal bandwidth is limited, making split-second decisions on where to invest efforts before plants wilt or slavering canines ransack the yard mandatory, heightening overall tension. And yes, there’s even a shop where you can buy new productivity-enhancing upgrades such as magazines, books, sodas, dog bowls and ultra-sharp scissors between every encounter.

Alas, dig a little deeper, and you’ll find that beneath this tempting topsoil lurks terrain inhospitable to excitement’s eventual blossoming. For starters, the tale’s overall aesthetic is less than professional, with garishly-colored and amateurish drawings used to depict characters in story-driven comic strip-type interludes. Actual on-screen action isn’t any prettier, as the proceedings are viewed from a pulled-back overhead view that obstructs visibility, with in-game objects represented by low-resolution computer-generated models. Oh, and as for actual human and animal animations and movements? Let’s just say if you saw someone walking that stiffly for real, it’d be polite to pass the Ben-Gay.

Instructions aren’t always clear either (a-ha, so earning money requires planting flowers, then delivering them to a clipboard that represents each environment’s owner, not a given individual themselves). Nor can one always immediately tell when it’s necessary to pick up a specific tool; if they’ve accidentally clicked on the wrong bush; or how close they are to meeting minimum requirements.

Frankly, certain information is either just not displayed at all (i.e. point targets, which you can’t see while actually playing) or in a disruptive manner (e.g. shear symbols that look deceptively similar to trimming icons, with one requiring you pick up a tool first to remove and the other not). In addition, variation in backdrops is slim to nil, save when you change location; the overall range of power-ups anemic; and reasons to keep at the adventure beyond the thrill of pure progression next to nonexistent.

You see, the best time management titles deliver a compelling range of audiovisual payouts or collectible goodies, creating user empathy by sucking you into the storyline, doling out must-see rewards and/or captivating with their atmosphere and personality. Helen Gardener seems to miss these points entirely, offering only the chance to see how fast you can click to put out proverbial fires without offering any sizable return for time investments. (Well, apart from seeing featured greenery resume its usual appearance after starting to brown and wither…)

Sure, it’s possible to complete levels quickly – rather than forcing you to wait for the clock to run down completely, you just have to beat a ticking timer, and can finish some stages in 90 seconds flat. But apart from earning a higher score and better ranking, really what’s the point? Apart from passable task queuing and cancellation, the designers fail to make any nod whatsoever to player enjoyment.

In fact, the creators miss even the simplest and most obvious opportunities to please casual gaming fans. For example: Why not just hand players money instead of making them seriously work for it between point-scoring opportunities? Or, rather than be stingy with the upgrades, how about doling out tons of sweet power-ups plentifully to boost excitement levels, vary up gameplay and encourage continued advancement?
Ah well… what do we know? We just rate these things, not make ’em. (OK, that’s not entirely true – yours truly did self-publish the admittedly ho-hum Heavyweight Thunder.) Still, all cattiness aside, it’s tough to see who’d really find Helen Gardener amusing, let alone the type of person you’d want to put in charge of your virtual landscaping…