Review: Botanicula

Review: Botanicula
4

Platforms:

Windows PC, Steam, Mac

Game Name:

Botanicula

Publisher(s):

Amanita Design

Developer(s):

Amanita Design

Genre(s):

Adventure, Indie, Casual

Release Date:

May 7, 2012

Developer Summary:

Botanicula is [a] point’n’click exploration game created by Jaromír Plachý and Amanita Design. It’s about a bunch of five friends – little tree creatures who set out for a journey to save the last seed from their home tree which is infested by evil parasites. The original soundtrack and sound effects are created by Czech alternative band DVA.

What We Think:

An intuitive, wordless, symbolically-driven UI immediately belies the seamless marriage of elements that comprise Botanicula’s design. This winsome, adorable title features brilliant sound design by the same people who created its soundtrack in concert with a living breathing world that feels like an animated version of Richard Heighway’s illustration for Aesop’s Fables.

botanicula - screenshot 1

Botanicula as a game is about five little tree-dwelling creatures – something like a twig insect, a mushroom, a bulb, a feather, and a seed-pod presumably – each with a special skill unique to it (feather can fly-over, twig can flip upside down, etc). They make their way through a variety of flora and foliage in a quest to solve the problem of vampiric invaders that threaten their ecology.

In terms of game mechanics this translates to more of a point-and-discover in an interactive sense than puzzle-solving, but the puzzles do emerge and are only moderately more forgiving, at least at first, than those with which you are first confronted in the oftentimes exasperating Machinarium – Amanita’s previous title. Herein lives my primary gripe with the game, and with all of Amanita’s designs in that they can sometimes be a bit of a pixel-hunt as opposed to a game proper.

Having said that, the outcome of finding said hotpoints in any given level is often rewarding and continually overrides the frustration it has induced. Once things get rolling the interplay between the respective critters’ special skills becomes an intriguing challenge. There is very little, if any, opportunity for emergent play here, but given the title’s highly specific design considerations, this is understandable, add to which the number of bonus discoveries that are not a part of the main storyline more than make up for this.

As you progress through the world, though, you begin to discover and thus catalog the wide variety of species that you encounter. Clicking on the various objects around you usually also triggers some sort of musical cue or sound effect, rendering the experience akin to visiting a Science Center where, though you are not doing any science per se, you can have a lot of fun pressing buttons and pulling levers to witness its effects. If that appeals to you, then you are in the right place.

botanicula catalog

Levels comprise a variety of challenges – from collecting a series of objects to finding the right combination of actions to activating various elements in concert in order to progress. Added together these combine to create something that feels more like gameplay and less like an interactive storybook. Though I still take issue with puzzles that are more about trial-and-error than logic.

A second or third playthrough reveal that the game is not as linear as it may have seemed at first. There are many different roads you can follow that branch off (pun intended) into a huge variety of new environments, and in each of these seemingly a new means of interacting is introduced, be it a treasure map, or use for an ability, or manner of dealing with the ever-growing list of causalities you trigger. Often you must digress into an entirely new puzzle in order to solve one from a previous stage. The non-linearity creates a sense of variety that gives the game a high replay value.

botanicula screenshot - winter scene

There is something else going on here though – and that is that the implicit humor, the sense of discovery and joy it elicits, the emotional storytelling, all conveyed without dialogue is a rare feat in and of itself. Without the use of any language, the game is frequently laugh-out-loud funny. I can not base my analysis of this game on its mechanics alone. Not in a year that brought us such thought-provoking offerings as Dear Esther and Thomas Was Alone. Calling Botanicula a game on rails, is akin to calling it an adventure game; its net effect is greater than the sum of its parts.

And sometimes, for no apparent reason, things can get downright trippy, (which is of course, a good thing):

botanicula mushrooms
Botanicula – in-game screenshot – Mushrooms might get trippy

The music by DVA – a two-person electro-acoustic, Frippertronics-influenced orchestra from Czechoslovakia sounds like a cross between Penguin Cafe Orchestra and Sigur Rós which is perfectly suited for this game to the degree that I could not imagine anything else working in its stead. I had the opportunity to see them play at IndieCade 2012‘s closing night party and they were simply incredible. Their instrumentals are infectious and lift even the dourest spirits to a playful state. And this of course supports Botanicula’s theme to the utmost. In fact, I strongly urge you to procure the Botanicula soundtrack, if nothing else as it is as inextricably a part of this game’s tone as is Thomas Newman‘s score to American Beauty. In short I was delighted to able to see the band live because it really brought to light just how incredible the various components are that make up this game.

botanicula-spheres

In sum – Botanicula is a strange and unique creature in so many ways. At times its mechanics feel overly glued to a set of rails and often require pixel-hunting or trial-and-error to move forward, but, if taken as an interactive experience, its many beautifully-realized components and oftentimes clever puzzles come together to form a legitimately entertaining and memorable experience worthy of your time and currency. And hey, Disney’s Jungle Cruise still seems to be making kids smile after all these years, so I am go to go ahead and file it under a kind of Happiest Place on Earth for those slightly skewed, Beautiful Minds…

Botanicula won the award for Story/World design at IndieCade 2012.

Botanicula – official page at Amanita Design

Get Botanicula on Steam

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Indie-Game-Freak

[Los Angeles] The Indie Game Freak eats games for breakfast. It is a horror to behold, but it's good for the ecosystem.

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