To call Botanicula “a charming game” is almost an insult. Video games, for the most part, have given up on making charm a factor of their design, which one cannot really blame the developers for–charm is not selling near as many games as hit detection, particle effects, and online leaderboards are. Which is why “a charming game” is about as backhanded a compliment as saying “looks good for a Wii game.” Bontanicula’s charm is at a level that towers over “charming games” and fast approaches a territory usually reserved for animated features and Pixar films.
GAME NAME: Botanicula
DEVELOPER(S): Amanita Design
PUBLISHER(S): Amanita Design
GENRE(S): Adventure, Indie, Casual
RELEASE DATE(S): May 7, 2012
Botanicula is a point-and-click adventure game by Czech Republic-based Amanita Design, who indie game fans may recognize as the brains behind another darling little point-and-click, Machinarium. The gist of the story is that a horrible blight has been slowly killing a tree, and five young residents of the tree undertake a quest to save it and stop the blight. This is accomplished through a series of fetch quests, logic puzzles, reflex tests, and sometimes good old fashioned trial and error.
If my story description seems vague, there is good reason–Botanicula has no set, written canon as to exactly what is happening in the game world, and without text or voice acting, a lot of the world has been left up to the player’s interpretation, and I would hate to influence that for you. Even the five-some you control through the game is subject for interpretation, as one member is somewhere between a twig and a stick insect while another appears to be part seed pod and part house fly. The nature of the world of Botanicula is a whimsical microcosm of animalized and anthropomorphized insects and vegetation, which is a large source of the game’s aforementioned charm. This dust-mite-looking spoor cloud may sound and act like a sheep and that peanuty-tubery-worm may behave like a know-it-all hardcore gamer, but you will be left guessing until you try to interact with them.
The world is conveyed to the player through a mixed-media animated aesthetic, or for those of you not familiar with the style, it is reminiscent of story book illustrations such as “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” or (in an example I am loathe to use, for fear of ascribing undeserved attributes of silliness and absurdity) like a cartoon from Monty Python. The environments are largely interactive–hidden and non-essential animations abound, waiting to be discovered as you explore Botanicula’s world, and bits of the environment such as leaves, flowers, and cilia-like membranes will bounce and lean aside when you move the mouse cursor through them.
Aurally, the sound design is appropriate and functional, but is not anything worth writing home about. The soundtrack, on the other hand, is amazing. Composed entirely by Czech band DVA, the music has a natural, organic sound to it, and it lends exponentially more to making Botanicula a complete world than any factor. Grabbing the soundtrack is definite must if you end up being a fan of Botanicula, and possibly even if you do not.
Puzzles are the life-blood of the adventure genre, so be prepared to twist your brain around for this entry. You will not be facing puzzles of, say, a Fez difficulty, or even quite a Portal 2, but Botanicula will leave you scratching your head more than once. Unfortunately, for the stuck among you, Botanicula features no hint system. This is not a huge hindrance–there is no “fail state” you have to worry about avoiding, and most can be solved with brute-force trial-and-error if needs be, but I did become frustrated enough that I had to close the game and walk away more than once. Considering the number of adventure games out there that can be finished by a brain dead chimp that still include hint systems, to see actual mind-benders working without a net can be a little unnerving.
I did find myself pursuing the wrong track to solve puzzles a few times, but those instances were more attributed to assumptions I made about the solution I needed than any design of the game itself. You occasionally find an item you need being blocked if by one monstrous form of Botanicula inhabitant or another, and for some reason my mind locked into the idea that I had to scare these beasties off, an idea I suffered for when much experimentation later revealed that another solution was called for. Botanicula was encouraging a higher level of open-mindedness to solutions than I was anticipating, which is pretty neat.
There is, of course, some obligatory adventure game pixel hunting, as you pass the mouse across the screen looking for the cursor to change, but fortunately those moments are softened thanks to the non-essential environmental animations mentioned above. And the animations are the real highlight of the game. Often times the puzzles are not thinking problems, but just sequences where success depends on which member of your group you randomly select to interact with the world. Though they travel through the world as one, your party of heroes will occasionally take turns trying to accomplish a task, often times resulting in laugh-out-loud hilarity until you find the correct character for the job. These little moments are tallied along side other off-the-beaten-track secrets (over a hundred in total), and at the game’s completion you will be rewarded with some bonus animations depending on how many side events you successfully located and experienced. Essentially, the puzzles of Botanicula are just a McGuffin to give you a reason for the real purpose of the game, which is to explore, and its nice to see exploration encouraged in a manner other than just “finding an ultra-powerful weapon” for a change.
In the end, Botanicula’s charm (there’s that word again) comes from an overabundance of heart and soul permeating every layer of the game. A perfect gestalt of creativity, imagination, and most of all love for the art feeds into every aspect of the title. It is a highly enchanting game, and is easy to recommend to others.