Tim Schafer might find it difficult to get a classic point and click adventure game made these days, but Czech developers Amanita Design have been the custodians of the genre for the past few years, with their Samorost series and most recently, Machinarium. Botanicula springs from the same well of creativity, with all the pointing, clicking and quirky puzzling of those titles. But the similarities extend only to its mechanical design, as Botanicula is something of a more vibrant and floral affair in tone and setting.
Where Machinarium took place in a mechanical metropolis of urban decay, Botanicula is set upon a vivacious tree brimming with life. And as Machinarium was composed of muted browns and grimy greys, Botanicula is coloured from the pastoral hues of a woodland palate, with a nutty, paper like texture to its hand drawn aesthetic. It certainly is a beautifully vibrant world, feeling like the photo negative of Limbo’s silhouetted vagueness. And just as Playdead’s platform puzzler did, Botanicula teaches us one very important lesson; that spiders are evil and bloodthirsty villains.
The life force of your tree is being sapped by a gigantic arachnid and it is up to an unlikely rabble of heroes (An acorn, a twig, a mushroom, a fly and possibly a seed?) to traverse the branches of this microcosm and find some way to stop the eight legged terror before your home world dies. That is pretty much it as far as set up is concerned, but it is all that is needed to send you on a journey spanning this plant’s leafy canopy, barky stalks and earth-clad roots, puzzling your way through colonies of bugs and beasts along the way.
Structurally Botanicula is a little rigid and uncreative when compared to the imaginative whimsy sewn into its every visual seam. The overall arc of each chapter tasks you with obtaining a specific quantity of some (often arbitrary) collectable before you can progress to the next. And each is composed of numerous still screens that you move between as a group, with most having their own individual puzzles to solve.
This is classic point and click adventuring, with each puzzle requiring you to scour every pixel of an area in search of that interactive sliver. Once you see the pointer morph into a hand you’ve hit the jackpot and the challenge then comes from figuring out exactly what you can do with it. Shake it, scratch it, or maybe stretch it, Botanicula has a number of interesting physics-based puzzles, but the majority are composed of collecting items from one area and transporting them to another where they become useful. In this respect Botanicula falters a little as there is an occasional lack of consistency in its internal logic. Fill up a vending machine with coins to make the room flood? Electrocute an egg to hatch it?! They stand at odds with the logic of its other puzzles and can stifle progression.
The rest of the activities are a varied concoction of borrowed ideas ranging from mazes, races and even a game of volleyball against a mean fat guy on a chicken. Many employ the individual abilities of each team member, requiring you to simply select the correct one to carry out a task. There is only ever one correct way of doing things in Botanicula and it isn’t always easy to figure it out, as it lacks the coherence of a Monkey Island or a Myst. The world map is almost undecipherable, which makes the visual similarity between adjacently tiled screens mightily confusing at times. Likewise, whilst the presence of unnecessary interactivity in the occasional stage is a nicety, it can leave you wondering how to solve a puzzle that isn’t actually there, as many others are simply a game of trial and error.
Botanicula has its gameplay weaknesses, granted. But its main draw is simply the experience of its audio-visual delightfulness. The variety of locations Amanita has managed to craft from a single tree is simply ingenious, ranging from tiny squirrel holes and a branching town of vegetable houses, to underwater networks of roots. There is something of the animated Tim Burton about the wobbly eyed, World of Goo style quirk to its deranged bestiary of inhabitants, exemplified through their speech which is mumbled to a humorously incoherent garble, much like a Banjo Kazooie title.
And its audio design deserves heaps of praise, as to listen to Botanicula is to take in an ethereal ambience, reminiscent of Sigur Rós with a composition that feels like a turbulent mix of childhood emotions; at once hopeful and joyous and sometimes fearful and scared. There are even some stages in which music plays an important role in gameplay, requiring you to prompt a harmonising frog quartet or bounce on the heads of musical mushrooms.
It is all so persistently delightful to experience, so charmingly quirky that Botanicula has the power to melt away any frustrations resulting from the occasionally poor section of gameplay. But that doesn’t excuse their existence. There are some good puzzles, some intuitive and well balanced ones, yes. But those bouts of inconsistency or incoherence will sour the experience for a time. Good thing it’s all so delicious in every other respect then isn’t it.