First Impressions is a regular feature in which Mary shares her -surprise! – first impressions of a game she’s been playing while she should have been making comics.

I love you, Tall-nuts!

I love you, Tall-nuts!

I’d heard a lot about Plants Vs. Zombies, but didn’t get this single player Tower Defense game until it hit the iPhone app store this February. I’m glad I waited, because it is truly the perfect iPhone game. And by that I mean the perfect game for me to play while on the subway, or waiting in line, or curled up in bed before turning the light out. I still dabble in Bejeweled now and then, but PvZ is a meatier casual game. There’s just a little more to grab on to. A lot more, actually. And yet, it still possesses the ability unique to casual games: it’s easy to pick up and put down. Well, maybe not that easy to put down. But if you’re in a pinch, like say, if your subway doors are about to close as you realize you almost missed your stop, you can turn it off quickly and not lose progress.

As far as tower defense games go, it’s not as hard as the few TD games I’ve played. Defender Chronicles, Geo Defense Swarm, and Field Runners are all more difficult and require a little more strategic thinking than PvZ. But don’t get the wrong impression – PvZ warms you up slowly, gradually increasing the difficulty as it throws a variety of zombies and even surfaces at you. Luckily, you also build up a collection of unique plants in your arsenal. It’s a lot to keep track of, but you’re limited to 7 slots (you can buy more as you go – I have 8 and I’m saving up for 9!) of plants to use on any given level. And you also quickly unlock a handy almanac detailing all the abilities of plants and zombies that you’re already encountered.

My strategy has generally been to line up sunflowers (and at nighttime, mushrooms) at the back row, sometimes doubling them up. The next row is a line of shooters, then a line of a special ability plant, usually one that slows. Then I leave a space or two for later planting, and start building a defensive row of Wall-nuts. Preferably, Tall-nuts. They’re my favorite unit so far. I get so sad when I lose one! Fortunately, they’re pretty tough and don’t get lost too often.

Oh, and did I mention that the game is absolutely charming? It’s charming. I was not paid to write this. I want to adopt a Tall-nut (Pop Cap merchandising opportunity?), the graphics are adorable (even the zombies!), and the music is somehow both soothing and adrenaline-pumping at the same time.

Straphanger review: If you have a seat, like most games, you’re golden. If you’re interrupted, you can easily pause the game and pick it up where you left off. The addictive and immersive nature of the game can be hazardous to your awareness of your stop, so stay alert! Standing and playing isn’t ideal, but can be done, as I have many times. It’s possible to play the game one handed, cupping the device and playing with your free thumb, while you hang on to your chosen means of balance. That thumb will stay very busy though, picking up suns, coins, and planting your zombie killers!

Plants Vs. Zombies is published by PopCap Games and designed by George Fan. You can try it for free on their site, buy it for $2.99 from the iTunes App Store for your iPhone or iPod Touch, or download it to your Mac or PC for $19.99. It’s also been announced to Xbox Live Arcade, though I didn’t find a release date.