Amanita Design's Botanicula is an extravagance of imagination.
Available for Windows, Mac, and Linux, it's a follow-up to the Czech studio's artsy point-and-click adventure Machinarium, which found critical and commercial success across the globe thanks to its beautiful graphics, challenging puzzles, and a compelling story told through images rather than words.
Botanicula follows a similar formula, but where Machinarium explored a monochromatic world of robots and machinery, this new game is set in a lush organic world full of life and colour.
The narrative focuses on five tiny creatures that are a strange cross between plant and animal. Their goal is to save the vast, fantastical tree on which they live from invading creatures that seem intent on gobbling it up. Under our guidance the quintet journeys around the tree, foiling its parasitic invaders and helping their fellow arboreal inhabitants.
The veins of the great, strange plant teem with life. Its limbs, which glow and throb with colour and energy, play host to nests, webs, and hollows, and produce curious substances upon which various animals rely. The tree could be fairly dubbed the star of the game.
The tiny creatures that call the tree home are nigh alien in their bizarreness and variety. They have stick-like limbs, fungal heads, shelly carapaces, and are often without mouths, noses, or ears. Most don't even seem alive until they actually move. Many would border on creepy if not for their adorable, babbling voices and very human needs (they crave food, worry when they lose their offspring, and desire to protect their homes).
The ecosystem formed between plants and creatures is wonderful to witness. Many of the things we see and encounter – creatures and foliage that react to our movements and clicks – exist simply for the player's appreciation and have little to do with the game's objectives, save that they earn players collectible cards when observed.
It is, in short, among the most vibrant, organic, and immersive worlds you're likely to encounter in a side-scrolling adventure game.
However, while its lush environments and delightfully weird creatures alone make Botanicula worth the price of admission (or download, as the case may be), the experience falls a little short in a couple of key areas.
We move around the game's wee world by following twisting paths that lead off the sides of the screen to new locations. These locations compose a series of tiles that connect not as a grid or a line, but as haphazardly diverging routes. And since many locations are distinguishable only via the subtle curves and jags of the branches and roots we travel, finding one's way around the tree can be needlessly difficult. A little map hand drawn on a leaf helps a bit, but is itself sometimes confusing.
The puzzles, meanwhile, are too often solved via arbitrary actions rather than logic. Countless clicks are required in order to figure out what needs to be done as we move through the game, and while many of these clicks are essential to the game's sense of magic and discovery, I found they also made some of the tasks we encounter feel rooted in randomness. Just clicking once on an interesting looking object, for example, may not cause it do anything, but click it five or ten times and something special might happen. With no obvious indicators suggesting we should keep clicking, it can be all too easy to just leave the object behind without learning its function or secret. This inevitably leads to the player getting stuck, sometimes for long stretches.
There's a fine line between trial-and-error play and solutions arrived at through observation and reasoning, and Botanicula crosses too frequently into the former. I don't doubt that we've been given visual patterns and audio cues, but they often require plenty of random clicks to activate, or are so subtle that they blend in with a scene's background activity. Suffice to say I relied heavily on an online walkthrough in certain parts of the game.
Still, I'm happy to have played. Botanicula's unique world is a pleasure to visit, and one I won't soon forget, even if I didn't care overly much for some of its puzzles.
You can download it as part of the latest Humble Bundle until May 3rd and get four additional games for free, including the original Machinarium. The average pay-what-you-want purchase price was hovering at around $9 at the time of this writing, with more than 60,000 bundles sold. Once the bundle expires Botanicula will sell on its own for $10.
Platforms: Windows PC (reviewed), Linux, Mac
Developer: Amanita Design
Publisher: Amanita Design
Release: April 19th, 2012