A glowing seed blossoms into a beautiful tree even as the calm, almost meditational music lulls you into a warm, secure haze while you play idly with the brand new buds, unprepared for the sudden, vicious attack of an amorphous, spidery blob that mercilessly chomps and stomps through everything in its way. A lone seed slips through its grasp, and fortunately lands on a gentler soul, a leaf-shaped tree-creature that instinctively knows what it has to do: gather his friends – a seed, a winged insect, a stick flower and a toadstool, and embark on a race against time to save their tree, home to an entire collection of flora and fauna both adorable and repulsive, harmless and predatory. Botanicula, the newest offering of indie Czech studio Amanita Design, is a surreal adventure that follows the five protagonists on their grand quest, tracing their journey as they use their capabilities and resourcefulness to fend off the parasites before they suck the tree and most of its inhabitants dry.
You’ll sense you're in for something special the moment the installer launches with a cheerful whoop chorused by the little guys, and as the game unfurls its fabulously illustrated canvas with nary a word of greeting, you know for certain this is no ordinary game. The story is simple, built on the comfortably familiar theme of good versus evil, and it allows you to swing into action without meandering about on moral dilemmas. The bizarre tasks, which cover a wide variety from object collection to arcade sequences, are surprisingly logical despite the eccentric appearance of the game itself, and range in difficulty from very easy to reasonably tough. The real challenge arises from the style of gameplay: an uninstructed, fairly non-linear system which leaves you to fend for yourself in a sizable, often maze-like playing area. This may overwhelm you initially, but you soon settle into a rhythm, drawn in slowly but surely by the organic world with its fantastic shades and sounds, and the vast menagerie of cartoony, anthropomorphic characters, both plant and animal. The parasites are more than a worthy adversary, aggressive and fearsome, and together with the innovative and often tricky obstacles, will demand that you bring your A-game to this adventure.
Amanita's distinctive method of intentionally skimping on instructions – there are essentially none in this game – makes Botanicula a game that takes some getting used to. Right off the blocks, you're on your own, without the slightest inkling of what to do. A novice to this format, I spent the first couple of minutes staring at the starting screen of the graceful tree, waiting for something to happen, before I realised that I had to make things happen. During the engrossing, unstructured adventure that ensues, you're compelled to experiment, evaluate and devise ways to interact with the environment before you can get to solving the actual problems facing the tree and its residents. Unfettered by the restrictions of instruction, you're free to cavort around the game world, trying anything and everything to find out what works and what doesn't.
This experiment-driven gameplay multiplies the challenge of its deceptively simple approach by requiring you to first decipher the micro-objective, then determine how to achieve it in terms of sheer mechanics ( click more than once? rapidly click repeatedly? click and hold? click, hold and drag, perhaps?) till you eventually elicit a result or discover a pattern. Once I grew accustomed to the quirky format, I relished the experience, to the extent that I think rushing through this game using a walkthrough every time you're 'stuck' would significantly lessen the immense enjoyment you can derive from actually deducing how to extract yourself from the sticky situations.
You're not restricted to an ordered sequence of tasks, but the game world is broadly divided into four segments – the upper, healthy half of the tree, where you start; the lower half, ravaged by the parasites; underground around the roots; and finally into the core of the 'infection'. Each area takes about an hour to complete, and you're free to explore in any direction, barring obstacles and enemies. Arrows mark the directions in which the Five can travel, though there are many other ways they can arrive at their destinations: falling off surfaces, being carried off by other creatures, flying via an ingenious helicopter, or even submerging in a living submarine. Early on, you collect a leaf-map, which sketches out areas as you visit them and indicates your current location, making it easier to keep your bearings around the convoluted landscape.
Botanicula is chock full of puzzles of every sort. The inventory-based quests are straightforward in concept – the Five must scour the tree and its environs for certain items indicated by silhouetted forms in the inventory atop the screen. Some tree-beings they encounter en-route offer their help in exchange for favours, like procuring bait for a fisher-thing or retrieving the lost children of a distressed mommy-critter. These requirements are indicated via graphic thought bubbles which appear above the askers' heads, then enlisted in the inventory. Often, groups of scattered items have to be collected, like five keys or fourteen running ostriches, all of which must be gathered before they can be used. Objects sit in their reserved spots in the inventory until needed.
One of the most interesting aspects is the way the objectives lead from one to the next, initiating intelligently-devised chain reactions of actions and consequences that nudge, shove, or hurtle the Five to their victories. There are a bunch of logic-oriented puzzles which range in difficulty from nice and easy to delightfully clever to borderline aggravating, like organising a set of cup-flowers to direct a flow of water, bouncing objects around in proper sequence at correct angles, and clicking carnivorous tentacles in the right order to deactivate all of them. Some solutions demand discipline to unravel through trial-and-error, such as deciding which extending arms of a protagonist are the right ones to fetch an object, and at least one – constructing an animal from three randomly generated parts – seems to be based on pure dumb luck.
Several minigames involve varying degrees of mouse-control, such as one in which you have to carefully nudge lazily-floating orbs into holes, and another where you have to negotiate a beetle-race around a circular arena by rotating a centrally-placed handle. There's even a volleyball match of sorts, and some arcade sequences like a race through a convoluted maze while pursued by a seriously-annoyed larva, and a frantic descent through the belly of a monster while firing at creepy-crawlies and space shuttles. While none of these challenges are cripplingly difficult, some may require patience and a few rounds of practice to master.
It’s not like the Five don't make mistakes themselves, either. Their inherent exuberance often causes them to act without caution, and some quests involve extricating them from crises their carelessness or curiosity have landed them in. On occasion, you have to pick one of them to solve a puzzle based on their innate capabilities. Choosing the wrong one isn't fatal, or even a bummer; on the contrary, these erroneous decisions usually yield hilarious non-results that make it worthwhile to intentionally select clearly unviable options before settling for the correct one. That said, it's disappointing to never have the Five work cooperatively in tandem. There’s considerable frittered opportunity to creatively use combinations of their varied skill-sets, such as the stick flower's impressive elasticity, the winged insect's ability to fly, or the toadstool's plump, bouncy head, to resolve issues, or even establish a clear group dynamic. As it is, given the absence of back-stories and intra-group interaction, the Five usually remain clumped as a generic 'tool' instead of serving as distinct individuals in their own right.Continued on the next page...