Overflowing with TLC, Amanita’s latest is sure to grow on you
I’m the kind of person for whom “scared of spiders” is a huge understatement. Normally, I’m curling slowly into the fetal position while my girlfriend poisons the beasts with a bottle full of shower cleaner. So it’s perhaps the highest compliment that I can give to say that Amanita Design’s Botanicula makes me want to give the collective insect world one massive hug.
It’s more than a love letter to bugs, however. The Machinarium developer’s latest seems to celebrate tiny creatures, unseen machinations, and the beauty of the natural world. More excitingly, it feels like part of an ongoing ode to wonderment and discovery; a game which once more pushes the boundaries of the modern point-and-click adventure. And cures fears, apparently.
It would be a disservice to the experience of Botanicula to describe the whole story, because like Amanita’s first outing, the narrative here is a thing to untangle: a puzzle within a puzzle. To that end, you control a group of five bug-plant crossovers the likes of which Roald Dahl would cook up, on a mission to find out why their treetop home is suddenly losing life.
A mission that – like Machinarium‘s – is without words, and is all the better for it. With no formal convention to hold your hand, Botanicula quickly becomes about the curation micro-relationships. But hundreds, this time. The world’s many insectile inhabitants are your only keys to understanding what’s gone wrong, and helping them with their problems is your only hope of making things right.
The result is something truly exploratory, and full of moments and characters that often exist just to exist. One of my favourite features is the game’s deck of playing cards. A constantly updating, avante garde Wikipedia of movement that chronicles the laundry list of minor and major players you encounter – for no other reason than to do so. In an age steeped in achievements, leaderboards, and reward points, Botanicula feels refreshingly pared down. Teeming with life, yes, but a reminder that straying from the beaten path to watch a colony of fantastical dragonflies hatch from eggs can be its own reward.
This isn’t to say the game is haplessly open-ended. In fact compared to Machinarium , I’d say this is less confusing. Gone is the occasional obtuseness of being left to figure out where you’re supposed to be puzzling before you can even begin to solve something. Instead, Botanicula is divided in its own way into zones with often very clear objectives. And while you may get twisted around now and again, the addition of a world map means that most of your head scratching will be done on the puzzles.
If the game had a star, it would most definitely be the puzzles. In the spirit of this game’s focus on relationships, advancement seems to be about satisfying needs. Finding things lost and trading them for things owned. Coaxing things coveted away to craft tools. Forging paths forward through favours and – in some cases – trickery. Where some adventure games satisfy by putting only your right brain to the test, Botanicula is far more Monkey Island than Myst. Some devilish pattern play exists, but mostly you’re an anthropologist, studying and harnessing behavior.
Since I’m never one to leave an analogy in the wind, the supporting cast here is equally stellar. Amanita’s growingly signature hand-stencilled flare leaves its mark on every doting frame. And while there are gorgeous, almost mystical qualities to the background, it’s the truly baffling variety of characters that take center stage. The weeks and months that must have gone into concept design pay off in a host of background extras that will have you entranced and wanting to bring your favourite ones home.
Meanwhile, Botanicula‘s tribal, ambient soundtrack ranks for me among the best videogame music this year. Owing in part to the gamut of distorted human voices used as dialogue, the score and effects mingle to remove all doubt that you’re on a journey into the unknown.
And while some players hungering for weeks of puzzling may find the game’s six hour story too fleeting, or others still get scared off by its on-the-sleeve oddity, this is one journey you shouldn’t miss. For good reason, Amanita is growing a reputation for making games that urge you to think and feel in equal measure, and this is no exception. Simultaneously minimalist in spirit and oozing with craftsmanship, Botanicula is a sure bet for puzzlers and dreamers alike.
[While available on multiple platforms, our review was constructed using the PC version]