Gaming

Preserve’s Chill Tree-Planting Puzzles Make It One of the Best Next Fest Demos

Get back to nature.

key art from Preserve puzzle game
Bitmap Galaxy

Just because video games tend to keep you inside doesn’t mean they can’t help you feel just a little closer to nature. More and more games lately are embracing an ecological message, and a new contender for one of the best is now available on Steam. Developer Bitmap Galaxy’s Preserve isn’t due out in full until later this year, but you can try it out with a new demo during Steam Next Fest.

Preserve’s hex grid probably looks a little familiar to board game players, and even more so to fans of the 2022 puzzle game Dorfromantik. In fact, Preserve looks almost identical to Dorfromantik at first, opening with just a few empty hexes floating in the void, but once you start filling that space up, the differences are immediately apparent. Where Dorfromantik was all about building up tiny towns by placing houses and railroads, Preserve is about creating a home for wildlife.

Preserve is a relaxing puzzle game about creating habitats for wild animals.

Along with that mostly empty grid, you start Preserve with a hand of cards depicting rain, plants, and animals. Each hex on the grid starts as a lifeless rock, but playing a rain card on it causes water to pour down, leaving grass behind. Then, you can turn that space into a forest, marsh, grassland, or other terrain based on which style of map you’re playing (coastal and savannah biomes are currently available in the demo). The final step of the process is to add some fauna to the flora, playing the card of an animal — giraffes, bees, and boars are among your options — to add one to that space.

Mechanically, that’s about there is to Preserve, but what makes it a game and not just a pleasant little screensaver is its scoring system. Each card you play grants you a certain number of points (which the game calls Harmony) and you need to hit certain score thresholds before you run out of cards to draw a new hand and keep the game going. Converting barren ground into habitats nets you a few points, as does laying rivers and lakes next to them, but the animals are the real way to boost your score. Putting three animals of the same kind, or one from three different species, earns you the big points. Hitting your goals also lets you lay down another big chunk of hex grid to build your habitats on, which you can position yourself to find the most optimal setup.

Preserve lets you build a natural habitat from a hand of cards.

Bitmap Galaxy

Like Dorfromantik, Preserve so far strikes a perfect balance between relaxation and puzzles. At least at early stages, you have plenty of cards to fill up an entire environment without trouble, and you can focus on aesthetics as much as high scores. Presumably that will get tougher as you unlock larger maps and progress through the game, but there are also options if you find the vibe is off in the demo.

Creative mode removes the scoring system altogether, turning Preserve into a purely artistic exercise. In this mode, you’re free to plop down shrubs and elephants to your heart’s content just in the pursuit of crafting a pleasing digital diorama.

A round of Preserve has you building up a serene wildlife sanctuary.

Bitmap Galaxy

If you want to go in the other direction, there’s puzzle mode, which centers problem solving over the simplicity of creatively arranging tiles. In puzzle mode, you’re given a grid that already has some arrangement of habitats laid out, and a single hand of cards with no way to earn more. The goal in this mode is to reach a target score with the limited resources you have at hand. Just like in the more freeform classic mode, these challenges start simply enough, but ramp up the difficulty more quickly as you move through them. The early puzzles take just a few minutes each to complete, so they’re a great way to get a tiny dose of virtual nature when you don’t have time to build out an entire sprawling environment.

While Preserve looks superficially like Dorfromantik, its vibes are much more in line with last year’s Terra Nil, the so-called reverse city builder about repairing the land from human disruption. Making and playing video games are, unfortunately, not the most environmentally friendly of activities. No amount of placing cute giraffes on your screen will change that, but the growing number of games engaging with environmentalism feels like it could raise players’ interest in conservation and the natural world around them. Maybe that’s expecting too much of a cute puzzle game, but at the very least, Preserve is an excellent, meditative challenge for animal lovers.

Preserve’s demo is available on PC until Steam Next Fest ends on June 17.

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