Version tested: Mac
Read the small print carefully, OK? Botanicula sells itself as a point-and-click exploration game as opposed to a point and click adventure game. What kind of difference can that single word make? Plenty, actually. Come here looking for the puzzles, for instance, and you may find yourself feeling quietly disappointed. Turn up with a bit of a rambly micro-safari in mind, however, and you'll probably be in a state of complete rapture from the word go.
Botanicula's the latest game from Amanita Design, the Czech studio that previously gave us Machinarium, amongst other treats. Machinarium was a lovely, lonely adventure starring the world's most huggable robots (second-most huggable if you've seen Silent Running, obv.), and while Botanicula's not a sequel by any means, it feels like a sort of companion piece. Here, the previous game's rusting scrap metal landscape is replaced with its exact opposite - a muddle of moss and twigs and creaking bioluminescent branches - while the cast of malfunctioning droids has been swapped out in favour of a gloopy selection of grubs, beetles, snails and spiders.
One of those spiders is responsible for what little narrative the game possesses, after it pinches a crucial seed from the huge home tree that provides Botanicula's setting. I think that's what happens, anyway; it's all a bit vague. No matter. It seems there's a dark force of corruption spreading across this natural paradise, and after a few lavishly pretty and endearingly skippable cut-scenes, you're off to save the day, in the form of a tiny rabble of unlikely heroes.
To the extent that Botanicula actually has traditional puzzles, it's your five heroes - who thankfully move as a single group - that often end up playing the role of your tools. There's a toadstool, for example, who can bat things around with her bouncy head, and there's a spry little branch that can occasionally send out roving twiglets in order to scoop items out of holes and wells. That's the kind of gang you've been put in charge of.
None of this set-up is quite as important as it sounds, mind, because Botanicula's puzzles are its least interesting element. For a game so riddled with imaginative whimsy, the structure of the challenges is relentlessly formulaic, with each chapter tasking you with collecting a different selection of items in order to open up the route to the next bit of the world.
Never thought a group of bugs might need door keys? Think again: these guys are after a handful of them, just like they're in the market for plenty of chickens to power machinery, and they'll even drop everything to round up a troop of kidnapped chestnut babies when the scenario depends upon it. Woven into these treasure hunts, you'll find plenty of fetch-quests and substitution puzzles, along with mazes, programming variants, and the odd rhythm action sequence. There's even a top-down shooty bit. On the surface, at least, it's not particularly inspiring.
"Towards the end of the game, it feels a bit like you're exploring the inside of somebody's uterus."
Alongside all this, there's a sprinkling of challenges that can initially seem completely random. These hinge on interactions that don't really have quite enough internal logic to them, such as opening a jack-in-the-box a certain number of times to reveal a secret item, or feeding coins into a slot machine in order to - of course! - unleash a flood.
If this were a straight-up adventure game, Amanita's rather patchy approach to content would probably be a major problem. But it isn't, remember? It's an exploration game, and as such, the puzzles all tend to have one thing in common. They're training you to get the most out of the game's single-button control scheme: to abandon logic and simply interact with as much of the environment as you possibly can.
Thankfully, Botanicula's single-screen environments are well worth interacting with. Gorgeously rendered and packed with details, this is a landscape of trees and branches and nests and cocoons, where water pools inside delicate scooped petals and folk bands made of over-fed grubs lurk under mossy ledges. One standout sequence has you exploring a city of weird little onion houses as you track down that group of chickens I mentioned earlier, and each doorway takes you to its own world: from a weevily sort of restaurant where there's pepper to shake around and plenty of ugly food on the go, to a sports hall in which you can play a pick-up game of beach volleyball against a nasty fat guy who looks like a beetroot.
Suddenly, with all this invention on offer, Botanicula's weirdest puzzles actually make sense. This is a point-and-click game where the point is to click on everything. Whether you're looking at a Ferris wheel crank or a miniature igloo, click often, and click repeatedly: Amanita's laced the game with dozens of lovely little secrets for you to uncover.
The art style suggests some superstar mash-up of Gary Larson and Eric Carle (the Very Hungry Caterpillar guy), and it's married to wonderful tinkling, wheezing, twanging audio by the Czech band DVA. Music's pretty important to Botanicula, with certain sequences behaving almost like instruments as you send your party bouncing off the heads of mushrooms or fiddling with taut strands of grass. Other parts, meanwhile, are all about physics, and involve tugging on frogs' tongues, yanking plugs out of the bottom of spider-stuffed gourds, and popping bubbles that rise out of friendly snails.
Tying it all together is what feels like the game's true objective, as you set out across this weird, sometimes frightening landscape and try to catalogue each of the dribbling creatures you meet on your travels. Every new life form comes with its own little animation card you can view in a sub-menu, and it swiftly becomes a compulsion to track them all down. This, of course, involves even more pointing and clicking, as you disturb leaves, brush webs aside, and investigate every poky old cranny where something many-legged and multi-eyed might lurk. The insect designs features the same sort of flair the team brought to all those busted contraptions from Machinarium; Botanicula treads a thin line separating the gorgeous from the gruesome.
There are times, of course, where you wouldn't mind a little more guidance, and there are times when your stomach turns at the prospect of yet another puzzle that involves feeding X's children into Y's gaping mouth (seriously). Even the trickier solutions are always right in front of you, however, lying with a discarded nut that's rattling around in your inventory, perhaps, or with a doodad gained in a mini-quest you got from an angry worm lurking a few rooms back. And as for the whole X feeds Y business, Amanita's clear-eyed vision of nature behaving, as Woody Allen once said, like one big restaurant, is probably preferable to the cloying sweetness of so many videogame creepy-crawlies.
All of which makes Botanicula another one of those weird little offerings that is as much a place as it is a game: an old tree filled with strange life, in which dazzling secrets lurk under every stone. Click!
7 / 10