Parenthood, as some of you will know and some of you will no doubt find out, is many things. It’s certainly a lot of fun, but it’s also a lot of hard work. Mainly, though, it eats into your gaming time. I was a mean machine at Civilization IV, but since the arrival of my little bundle of joy, I’ve just about managed a single full game of Civilization V. In the early days, it’s all bottles of warm milk and rocking the little blighters to sleep, then, once they’re toddlers it’s all monster trucks on Youtube and going to the park.
Which is why, when a game comes along that captures the attention of a toddler, who is then willing to sit and just sort of drink in the colourful backgrounds, and the cutesy little characters, well, that’s something worth mentioning in a review. And Botanicula is about as kid-friendly as it gets, whilst still being fun for adults. In fact, it’s one of those rare things – a game that I could see appealing to pretty much everyone.
OK, so for those of you who might not have kids yet, but who go out partying. Imagine you’ve piled back to your mate’s house after the clubs have booted you out, and you’re lolling around on the couch waiting for sleep to take you, and your mate’s playing something on his PC in the corner of the room. Your eyes settle on the screen and, while it’s not really keeping you awake exactly, it’s just the right kind of visual stimulus for that post-party wind-down, complete with chilled ambient soundtrack.
That’s Botanicula. But you could also play it with your mum. Or schoolteacher. Or Slovakian half-cousin who doesn’t speak a word of English. Botanicula, like most Amanita games, doesn’t really have much in the way of dialogue. The cute characters all just kind of mutter unintelligibly at one another, and important plot points are communicated through pictures and symbols.
Graphically it’s a pretty far cry from Amanita’s previous hit Machinarium. Whereas that game was cluttered and busy, each screen bursting with imagination and activity, Botanicula is vibrantly coloured and organic, but much emptier. The story revolves around a group of… I’m not really sure. What are those guys? One’s a twig, and I think there might be a seed pod and a feather maybe? Anyway, a group of plant-like heroes who travel around a series of giant plants, trotting up and down stems and branches solving logic puzzles. Well, actually it’s a little unfair to just categorise Botanicula as a logic puzzle game. Or, for that matter, even a game at all.
Most of the time, when you reach a new screen, you’ll just sort of drift the mouse pointer listlessly around the screen, seeing what’s clickable. Then, you click on everything, and stuff happens. It might be stuff that furthers your progress, like causing a new path to become available, or it might just look pretty or make you laugh. Oh, it really will make you laugh, but not at anything that could be called a joke. Mainly, just at its unexpected ingenuity. Click on that funny-shaped lump on the branch ahead and a bunch of little singing frog heads might appear and serenade you. Not that it’s needed for your progress. It’s just there for your delight.
That said, there is a relatively challenging puzzle game hidden beneath the psychedelic whimsy. Few puzzles will absolutely stump seasoned puzzlers, but an important word of warning at this point – some of the puzzles react strangely to certain computers. I spent three days – three days! – stuck on one puzzle. This was before the release date for the game, on a review copy, so walkthroughs weren’t yet available. Then, when they did appear on the web, I just dived straight in to them like a starving man at a smorgasbord buffet. Still no joy, and it was only after some digging that I learned that the puzzle in question simply doesn’t work on my computer unless I resized the window to 60%. Then, I was through it in about thirty seconds. Later, another puzzle required shaking the mouse from side to side – while I could clearly see what needed to be done, the game just didn’t’ seem to play nicely with my mouse.
Now I assume that these teething troubles will be patched out pretty soon, so I’m going to give Amanita Design the benefit of the doubt. Because they really do deserve it. Botanicula is wonderful in that it really does inspire wonder. I gasped at the sheer beauty, jumped at unexpected surprises and laughed at the hilarious interplay between the heroes, particularly when they were messing things up or running in terror from monsters.
If you’ve played previous Amanita games, you’ll know what to expect. If you haven’t, I’d just like to recommend their entire back catalogue. Timeless games steeped in imagination and playfulness. Pricing isn’t really a problem at the time of writing this article as they’ve put it out as ‘pay what you want’ for a few weeks (much to the internet-wide annoyance of those who paid the admittedly-low full price for a preorder). This really is a game I feel comfortable recommending to pretty much anyone – it won’t last you forever, it may not be desperately deep or complex in its storytelling and it doesn’t offer RPG elements of any kind. But it is clean, simple fun that doesn’t demand too much of your machine (the Chillaxe demolished the system requirements with a malevolent laugh).
I would just suggest that, if you get really stuck, there’s no shame in looking for clues online as it might not be your fault.