Botanicula Review (PC)

“Joyful” is not a word I’d use to describe many games. “Enjoyable”, “fun”, “challenging”, “satisfying” all perhaps, but how many games can produce actual wondrous, pleasant, smile-inducing joy? I can name three off the top of my head: Samorost, Machinarium, and Samorost 2. What do they have in common? They’re all made by Amanita Design, an indie developer focused on creating lovely adventure games with no dialogue at all. Their latest is Botanicula, and it’s simultaneously a wondrous game for players and a reviewer’s nightmare.

Why? Because I can’t describe any of it without sucking away some of the crucial surprise value, and if I do anyway I’ll probably be committed because it all sounds so insane. It’s also impossible to describe the magic in words – it’s like explaining a joke, you just can’t do it if you still want people to laugh. I’ll do my best, but my editor’s holding a straight-jacket and a pink slip right now so I’ll also be wary.

I love to help giant tortoises in the morning

Botanicula is a puzzle-solving adventure game that takes place in the branches of a giant tree, which to the miniature inhabitants is like a huge city. This tree is under threat by a group of energy-sucking spiders, and all of the tree’s vital seeds have been eaten by the giant lead spider… save one. This last seed has fallen into the responsibility of a group of five friends – comprising two seeds, a twig, a mushroom, and a mosquito – who the player has to escort to safety, plant the seed and thwart the terrible spiders.

Not exactly the most conventional of setups for a game is it? No, and thank heaven for that. Botanicula is sweet, unconventional, bizarre, and surprising in a thousand different ways. Every single screen throws a new moment at you that’ll make you smile or outright laugh. It’s like a funny fairytale packed full of comedy gold, but like all the best fairytales it has a dark side too – the spider-creatures are terrifying creations, sucking all life and colour out of the tree and its creatures, and the head one is like the Eye of Sauron with legs attached. While there’s a happy ending it gets more and more disturbing before that happens.

Gameplay-wise as mentioned this is an adventure game, with puzzles an’ all, but for Amanita fans Botanicula is closer in style and difficulty to Samorost than Machinarium. While their robot-based adventure was considerably more difficult, requiring a full Hint system and even built-in walkthrough, their other games are generally far more relaxing. There’s no Hints system because there doesn’t need to be, and puzzles can often be solved by just clicking everything on screen – sometimes multiple times.

Think that sounds tedious? It’s not. Many objects the screen will react to the nearby presence of the mouse pointer, and actually clicking on something will often yield surprising results. Like clicking on an igloo could pop out a skiing penguin, doing so ten more times produces a different array of penguins, and the eleventh click presents an incredibly fat penguin that squashes your party and has to be air-lifted off by the mosquito. And that wasn’t even for a puzzle solution, in fact I’d solved the puzzle in the room already and was just revisiting it. The game’s packed with wonderful little moments like that on every screen.

Wow, that’s meta, man!

As for the puzzles as mentioned they don’t often take a lot of brainpower, but they do get quite devious later on, sometimes requiring several actions at once. The actions themselves are never explained, so you have to experiment to see if you can hold the left mouse button down and stretch a stick insect across a chasm to form a bridge (although how you deal with the vicious stag beetle afterwards is another matter). Timing can be key too, although you’re never permanently punished for any failings. Botanicula is just a nice, relaxing, stress-free game.

It’s also hilarious. There’s no dialogue, spoken words or text, so every gag is delivered (in best Aardman fashion) visually. Most hit home through surprise and oddness, and at the very least produce a smile. I played it with my girlfriend and we both had a great time whether we were the one playing or not – it’s just fun to watch all the cute, bizarre things going on. The animation has a simple, almost South Parky look to it, while the graphics themselves are colourful, vibrant, and lovely. Even when there’s a Frankenstein’s Monster bug playing football with his creator on the screen.

Not that the visuals alone cause the laughs. The soundscape is a mixture of cartoon effects and a member of the music team going “bong”, which somehow makes the game all the more absurd and lovely at the same time. Botanicula is a feast of aural entertainment, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that Amanita won an award for it at IGF. Music is largely atmospheric, but is swift to trumpet any and all accomplishments – and that produces the biggest smiles of all. Honestly, my mouth quite hurt after finishing it.

Yes, a mushroom’s playing tennis against a bug-man riding a miniature ostrich. I love this game

Ah yes, finishing. My journey from treetop to planting took roughly four hours, and I clicked on every single interesting object in the game. While the entirety of those four hours were some of the happiest I’ve had playing a game, I won’t deny that (as with all Amanita games) it’s quite short. If this is a problem for you, despite Botanicula being a pretty cheap game (and worth every penny in my opinion), feel free to walk away. You’d be doing yourself a disservice, but if that’s the way it is that’s your choice. In terms of replay value there are 200 “character cards” to collect by discovering and helping interesting characters hidden in the game, and even with my obsessive hunting I was still about twenty short. Getting them all unlocks some bonus scenes at the end of the game.

If you can pull yourself away from killing things for a few hours to play a sweet, adorable, bizarre, funny, joyful game, you owe it to yourself to buy Botanicula. It’s not massively challenging and it only really lasts four hours, but you’ll have a smile on your face for the entire time – and often a good laugh too. The score on the right is pretty rough – in terms of the enjoyment to playing time ratio the game deserves higher, but being critical I have to give Botanicula less than I want to. Sometimes I hate myself. It may say 8.5, but take it as a JOY FACTOR of 10 okay? Now then, excuse me while I massage this smile off my face, I can’t seem to turn it off.

Top Game Moment: Do you want a list? Pick any moment and it could probably be here. I’ll personally choose the tennis game to win an ostrich, and the way your opponent bursts into tears after you win.

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