“Watching gardeners label their plants I vow with all beings to practice the old horticulture and let plants identify me.” – Robert Aitken
Strange Horticulture is a brand new occult puzzle game in which players take on the role of the proprietor in a plant shop in the town of Undermere. Tasks include finding and identifying plants as well as helping local residents with their various needs. As the days go by and different people visit the shop, however, a darker narrative begins to reveal itself.
Developer: Bad Viking Games
Released: 21st January 2022
This game is being reviewed as part of the Indie Game Collective (IGC) showcase.
Players are thrown into the deep end a little bit as Strange Horticulture begins without much guidance or any tutorial. However, after some slight initial confusion things quickly become clear enough. The main task is to serve customers as they visit needing specific plants. Some will know the name of the plant they want, some will know the effect they need, some will just explain their problem. In order to meet their needs, the player must find and identify a grand total of 77 plants.
A ‘Strange Book of Plants’ contains small descriptions of the plants’ appearances and effects and can be used to identify collected specimens. The book is fairly empty at first but additional pages can be found by exploring; they can also arrive in letters or be gifted by customers. Once identified the plants can be labelled however the space in which to store them is quite limited and, especially in the latter half of the game, finding specific plants can be somewhat time-consuming. In hindsight, putting the plants in alphabetical order from the beginning would be advisable.
As time passes the player will gain ‘The Will to Explore’, once the meter is full an area on the map can be visited, this can be sped up by watering plants, an activity that is otherwise redundant. Through exploring, new plants, book pages and other documents can be found. A lot of these documents will contain clues to find further points of interest. Other such documents can be obtained via the mail that arrives daily and from visitors to the shop. These clues, along with a number of items, including a ‘Bryer’s Disk, a coin, and a device to reveal hidden messages, are used to add variation to the puzzles, make for satisfying gameplay and ensure players are not solely identifying plants.
Negative experiences whilst exploring, as well as mistakes made in the shop (giving a customer the wrong plant for example) result in an increased sense of ‘Rising Dread’. Once full the protagonist loses their mind and the players must solve a jigsaw puzzle of a broken object in order to heal them.
Beginning as a simple tale about a plant shop owner, Strange Horticulture’s narrative evolves into a layered occult mystery featuring murder, cults, an ominous being known as the servant as well as an eclectic range of characters – some more likeable than others and each with their own individual stories! The intriguing narrative is delivered at a satisfying pace through exploration, dialogue, documents and puzzles in smooth conjunction with the gameplay. Key points can easily be visited as each of the main characters has a bio including conversation logs and all previous documents are archived.
Strange Horticulture has multiple endings and the player’s path is mainly determined by a number of choices regarding which plant to give a customer. For example, when an unpleasant customer complains that a plant they had ordered gave them a rash (a known property), the player can decide to cure them or make it worse depending on which plant they choose to provide. The larger narrative impacts of the choices being made are rarely clear to the player before the decision is made which helps to create suspense and maintain interest.
Strange Horticulture has a charming 2D cartoon art style using a dark, muted colour palette contrasted by the bright colours of some of the plants. The lack of vibrancy overall works well with the themes and narrative helping to create a slightly spooky feel.
The music consists mainly of gentle piano and strings that sit comfortably in the background helping to create a rounded and relaxing atmosphere. Minimal sound effects such as Helbore the cat purring and the shop bell ringing also add to this. There is no voice acting in the game but the quality of the dialogue and the intriguing narrative mean this does not impact the experience negatively.
Strange Horticulture smoothly blends its mysterious occult narrative with varied gameplay and familiar puzzle mechanics to create a really engaging interactive fiction with original gameplay. The well-written characters, symbiotic narrative design and moody cartoon aesthetic also work together well, complimenting the gameplay to provide players with a casual but atmospheric experience overall.