April 19th, 2012 | By Chris Priestman
From a seed can sprout a million things, and given that this particular seed helms from the bowels of Amanita Design, you can expect those things to be extraordinary. Before even playing Botanicula, I was greeted during installation with a cute chorus from the five tree friends I was to become so attached – it was but a glimpse into the sprightly sounds and delightful, childish veneer awaiting me. It was inviting indeed – a journey into what seemed to be a completely separate world. Alas, it is just a game and, as such, is here to be judged and not to establish an imaginary home within, though, given the chance, I’d soon move into this tree-dwelling neighborhood.
By far the greatest achievement of Botanicula is its ability to spread a smile. It didn’t need to grab my cheeks and force my stretchy lips into a crescent moon; it simply propelled me up to the real moon in order to see a surrealist’s interpretation of the first moon landing. Back down on Earth, though, in a particular tree, there are five friends who I had to help fulfil a foreseen prophecy – to plant a seed fallen from the sky in order to save their home from a parasite attack. They’re a mad bunch, and playful too, but fearless in their strive for adventure, and they carry with them the greatest team morale you ever did see. The five protagonists of Botanicula quickly became my best friends as I shared their victories and their close shaves with death, and was soon wishing to outstretch my palm towards the monitor so that they may hop on and bring a rarely seen joy into the room.
Botanicula captures the act of play in a most intuitive way. Though the five ‘heroes’ have a home to save, their main purpose seems to be to play with you, and the whole game is based around that concept. As such, I found that the three senses that can be affected by a computer game were being spoiled rotten. The splashes of color across the game’s fruitful and artistic scenes fascinated my eyes, from the pastel greens and mild yellows to the contrasting blacks and muddy browns of the game’s later stages. The music and sounds within the game really are outstanding – with every living thing that inhabits the screen assigned an organic sound rendered in a more characterful way. Human voices are distorted in choruses; strings and horns wail as if telling a tale and a whole range of unusual instruments hearken back to a folk music tradition, making the environment and any resources at hand resonate with a sound to fuel the imagination.
The third sense is, of course, touch. Botanicula is not best described as a point-and-click adventure as it transforms your grasp on the mouse into a means to reach into its world and grab, yank and prod. There’s a great sense of a tactile relationship between you and the game through this. Each static screen of Botanicula felt like a fresh discovery, giving me a chance to explore the microscopic world of bugs and buds as I did in my infancy under my mother’s gaze. It’s easy to sum it up,really – you’re seeing this world through the eyes of a child.
Botanicula transported me right back to my six-year-old self, who was rather fond of playing the Living Books series on CD-ROM. These were stories in which the player could click on various things in the screen and an animation would occur, with plenty of sounds, music and anthropomorphism to go with it. Botanicula captures this surprise of discovery perfectly as you scan the screen not to solve a puzzle, but to bring things to life. It is through these discoveries that you’ll progress through the game as you encounter some form of obstruction which will need you to find feathers, keys or glowing blue gems to be surpassed. There’s more than just pure fun to be had out of screen exploration too as with every new creature you discover, a playing card is added to what will become your ever-growing collection. Depending on how many you have by the game’s end, you’ll be rewarded with a gift-wrapped present, perhaps even three if you found all of the playful characters.
Botanicula may be all about discovery, but it always ensures that to actually progress, you’ll never be strained and will consequently never outstay your welcome. Too many times in-point-and-click adventures I have been left to cycle through the same scenes looking for the tiniest detail, or swapping inventory items over and over again for a solution. Botanicula has none of this. One of the most reassuring aspects of the game is that you are only allowed to do anything with an item in your inventory if it’s supposed to be used in that screen – it is design like this that ensures you don’t become disengaged with the world. You’ll flow through the game with a very natural rhythm; you’ll probably get stumped a tiny bit, but not for very long – I’m willing to bet that even a small child could get through the game by themselves. It’s not like you even have to read at all; the story and the anecdotes from the always friendly inhabitants are told through imagery, garble and animation.
Having said all of that, there was one moment in the game in which I did get stumped for a couple of hours, and that was jarring to the experience. I eventually discovered that I got stuck because that part of the game required me to perform an action in the game which corresponded to shaking the mouse. Unfortunately, I encountered a lot of mouse lag here, and it wasn’t apparent that shaking the mouse actually did anything. Upon realising that was what I had to do, my arm was really aching after shaking the mouse so vigorously, so, obviously, that wasn’t right. I noticed significant mouse lag in a couple of other parts in the game when the mouse is used in a more active way too. I did inform the developers of this, and they have said that they are working on it to ensure this is fixed for release. So, presuming they do, that shouldn’t be a problem for anyone else.
If you ever wanted to be with Alice as she sang with the flowers, then Botanicula will chime with you very strongly. It will with just about everyone, adult or child, due to its fantastic presentation, simplicity and mellow joy. The game went on plenty long enough but, by its conclusion, I was left gagging for more. Part of me feels like there should have been more to the ending, but that’s probably because the rest of the game is filled with such magical content – it’s hard to top that by a game’s end. I’ve replayed the game since to not only find what discoveries I missed, but to also just relive the moments I found bizarre and the ones that made me giggle. My only disappointment is that I don’t have a young child around to play through the game; I think that’s where the game will really shine.