Developer: Amanita Design
The word "charming" frequently gets trotted out when reviewing Indie games, and with Amanita Design's latest adventure in the spotlight, I was sorely temped to copy it to the clipboard while writing this review. The team behind Samorost and Machinarium do charming, they own it, and Botanicula could well become the dictionary definition of the term. Controlling a team of five well-intentioned creatures (ranging from an acorn and a hovering feather to a rotund tuber), players set out on an epic voyage through an enormous tree, discovering clever puzzles and inexplicable, wondrous things in a quest to rid their home of a parasitic menace.
Though technically a point and click adventure, Botanicula proves to be so much more in the execution, with exploration and the thrill of discovery just as important as overcoming some tricky puzzle solutions. In many ways, it's a happy place, in any sense of the phrase.
Botanicula's world is best described as dreamlike, a lovely blend of the biological, the adorable and the Burton-esque. Your tree teems and bustles with life, and throughout the journey, you'll constantly discover a host of weird and wonderful organisms brought into vivid existence by exquisite, hand-crafted artwork. Creatures, while clearly based on real insects and plants, boast an earnest and innocent child-like quality, presenting a mix of the familiar and the disarmingly cute. Botanicula feels like a living, thriving ecosystem, with species going about their business rather than existing purely as puzzle solutions, pulling you willingly into its gorgeous, upbeat realm with a smile on your face.
A colony of cute feathery midges warble and toot as they flit about, encouraging players to hatch their eggs and click to add new tones to the melody despite it having nothing whatsoever to do with progression. Insects scuttle away from the cursor, shyly investigate your clicks and respond to your every movement. Some mischievous hallucinogenic mushrooms send you on a seriously strange trip, and even floating pollen particles react to your presence. There's something new and entirely unexpected lurking beyond every branch, and Amanita encourages you to loiter, explore and immerse yourself in this fantastical menagerie; clicking and poking at everything just for the sheer unadulterated fun of it. For the record, the iPad version can't come soon enough, since the tactile touchscreen would complement the experience beautifully.
The visuals are both crisp and muted, featuring pin-sharp art tempered by plenty of subtle soft focus, as if it were a half-remembered dream or the pages of a children's storybook. It's difficult not to be instantly disarmed by the playful presentation and the soothing, soulful soundtrack - indeed, it's easy to forget that Botanicula is actually an adventure game rather than a gorgeous, infinitely surprising and profoundly joyful new world to explore.
And then you're thrown into this wild and wonderful domain head-first. Impressively, Botanicula informs and educates its players without dialogue, explicit instructions or the written word, instead, masterfully encouraging us to interact with the world through your mouse with visual clues. Early puzzles ease players into the concept of controlling a team five distinct characters with separate abilities, slowly introducing us to their strengths and weaknesses with some simple "select a character to progress" trial and error solutions. But as the adventure continues, the mix of logic, memory and timing-based puzzles challenge us, not just with new mechanics, but with entirely new ways of thinking about the humble mouse.
As mentioned, Botanicula encourages players to explore its tactile and interactive world through sole use of cursor and left mouse button, and working discovering how your cursor will affect the world is a matter of experimentation and lateral thinking. At one point, for example, you'll need to use your cursor to smack floating orbs around within a gooey, amoebic sack. Down the line, your reflexes will be tested and your pattern recognition given a workout. Sure, Botanicula is only about pointing and clicking at a basic level, but Amanita Design have ensured that the adventure constantly offers up new and thoughtful gameplay experiences. The puzzles are just another part of its tactile world, waiting to be prodded and played with.
Botanicula does make the odd misstep. Though the branching tile-based structure is unavoidable and a basic map is on hand [UPDATED: thanks to eddebaby for pointing this out, apologies for the errata] - it's set in a tree, after all - getting lost and disorientated is all too easy. There's a total lack of signposting and landmarks, so you'll spend a fair bit of time aggravatingly retracing your steps until you've found the one puzzle you haven't completed in a particular area.
It also happens to be a rather short (even when compared to other adventure games), and features few concessions to replayability bar the undeniable beauty of the experience. I'd argue that this is an unavoidable part of the genre, but even so, there are definitely meatier adventures on the market.
- Impeccably crafted world, both in terms of graphics and art design
- Excellent, varied puzzles encourage players to touch, feel and experiment
- Irrepressible Amanita charm
- Occasionally disorientating branching structure
- Short and not suited to multiple playthroughs
- Lack of traditional instructions and feedback may deter some players
The Short Version: Botanicula is a thoroughly impressive and genuinely lovely adventure. It's impossible not to get lost in Amanita Design's wild and wonderful world, and despite the slightly confusing branching levels, I really do mean that as a complement.