Help a talented young woman win a gardening competition and save her grandparents' home.
Few of us think of gardening as a strategy for getting rich quick, but that's the idea behind flora-themed time management game, Gardens Inc.: From Rakes to Riches. This zippy little title encourages you to get your hands dirty, demanding not only that you manage your time effectively, but your resources as well. Except for a few instances where the interface hinders rather than helps you do this, Rakes to Riches is an absorbing horticultural diversion.
The game starts in the middle of the story, as Jill (the heroine) wins the Sunnydale gardening competition. Moments later, she's arrested. Structured like a 1940s film noir, the story moves back in time from that point to three months previous to explain why Jill entered the contest in the first place. It turns out, Jill's grandparents owe a slimy housing developer a million dollars, and if they don't pay up, they'll lose everything. Fortunately, the prize for winning the Sunnydale gardening competition is exactly that—one million dollars—and Jill, along with a friend of hers from college, decides that money will be hers.
Before being able to enter the competition, Jill needs to spruce up the old homestead and for that, she needs money. The best way she knows to make money is to do landscaping for the various denizens of Sunnydale, so she and her crew start taking jobs around town. Many time management games focus exclusively on surprise!—time management. Rakes to Riches however, challenges us to collect resources as well. Tools are the primary resource, with wood, rock, seeds and cash making up the rest. All resources come from specific shacks which can be upgraded (at a cost) to produce larger quantities of resources.
Each garden you take on comes with a set of client demands that you must fulfill and a bonus goal which comes in the form of a riddle: “With this garden, think stripes.” (It means you should plant alternating rows of similarly colored flowers.) Each level is timed, and although you can still complete the level after the timer runs out, your compensation for finishing the job is then seriously diminished. Success depends on identifying where and how to spend your resources, and this is especially true later in the game when every move your workers make depends on whether or not you have money to pay them. That means if you're not great at managing the books, you'll get stuck waiting idle for your cash to build up as precious seconds tick away.
The game is full of upgrades that alter the pace of the game and again, really teach you a thing or two about prioritizing. You could, for instance, think it's a good idea to ignore upgrading your tool shack to upgrade other stuff and regret it later on when lots of tools are needed. In addition to providing the necessary building blocks for overhauling run-down gardens, shacks give you access to specialized workers. One of the best things about the game is that rather than repeating slight variants of the same level, it keeps changing throughout. The gardens on offer are varied, colorful and interesting and the characters within them are goofily amusing. At a certain point, ghosts start to appear and scare off your workers and that's when you need a professional ghostbuster. Or ravens start claiming plots of soil while burglars start creeping around stealing resources, thus necessitating the hire of a security guard and an animal hunter.
In addition to the game's visual elements offering variety, its story keeps things fresh. Every ten levels or so, another part of the mystery behind Jill's eventual arrest is revealed. Even better, now and then you're given a non-gardening level where you do unexpected things like infiltrating an office. As the story progresses, you're granted different power-ups that require as much skillful management as everything else in the game. You're given the ability to make your workers run faster, work faster, create resources faster—you can also stop the timer for 15 seconds or temporarily speed up the rate at which your cash builds up. All power-ups have a cool down, so if you pick “run fast” when you really need “work fast,” you'll end up kicking yourself.
For all the great things about Rakes to Riches, there are a few disappointments. The first is the music which is horrendously repetitive. I turned it off completely within the first hour. The next are the occasional AI (artificial intelligence) glitches that force you to restart some levels. More than once, my animal hunter got stuck running in place in a corner of the map and nothing I did could make him move. Because of that, I was unable to fulfill one requirement and couldn't complete the level. The se issues are definitely bothersome, but the most problematic for me is the game's lack of useful information. While things on the map have boxes that pop up to tell you what's needed to use, plant or build them, they fail to convey a host of other important things.
One of the most important aspects of time-management games is the task queue. It allows you to queue up multiple actions and prioritize them according to necessity and speed of execution. While Rakes to Riches lets you do that, it doesn't provide a numbering system to track the order in which tasks are scheduled to happen. This is necessary to manage your time efficiently and critical when time runs short. Other important omissions include information about upgrades (if you're going to spend resources on upgrading a tool shack, it'd be nice to what that upgrades buys you) and completion gauges for every action. The only way to find out how many seconds a given action takes is to watch the overall timer and with so much going on, that's really not a practical proposition. Finally, for all the effort spent on bonus goals, nothing on the level complete screen indicates that you're granted any kind of bonus for completing them.
The interface is the most significant problem but I do have one last little gripe—upgrading Jill's grandparents' villa just isn't all that rewarding. You start with an image of a run-down villa and as you earn money, you're supposed to upgrade sections of it. The problem is, the derelict image is already so lively and colorful, when you make upgrades, they really aren't all that apparent. Affecting a more meaningful transformation would have been so much more satisfying.
Gardens Inc.: From Rakes to Riches is a fun, clever little game. It looks good, offers a lot of variety in terms of mechanics and does a better job than most games like it, of telling an interesting story. Even though its music is far too repetitive and it lacks some essential interface elements, it's an unusual, well-made time-management title that's well worth playing.
- Cute graphics. Fast-moving gameplay. Interesting storyline.
- Occasional glitches cause level restarts. Interface lacks useful information and visual elements. Repetitive music.