Unique, surreal game world with outstanding art, animation, sound and music; vast cast of imaginative characters; challenging but interesting gameplay; numerous puzzles of many varieties.
Main cast poorly-defined as individuals and never work in tandem to solve problems; zero instructions and experiment-based gameplay may alienate inexperienced players.
4.5 stars: "A superb game that excels in just about every area, held back only by one or two notable flaws or a collection of smaller ones that prevent the game from earning full marks."
A creation of obvious love and care, Botanicula is a must-play for those seeking a truly imaginative and entertaining adventure game.
Almost every screen has a number of hotspots, some useful, some merely entertaining. There are various little activities to distract you from your quest: you can click flowers into blooming, disturb bugs ensconced in nooks and crannies, leap off springy branches, pluck dead leaves, play chase with naughty baby-critters, watch shockingly gory puppet shows, zone out in a psychedelic haze after marching into a cluster of magic mushrooms, and even seek out pictorial storytellers to learn more about the history of the forest. The busy world of fervent little beings offers many moments of comedy as they interact with each other – talking, laughing, fighting, eating, sleeping, colliding. Each action is depicted in great and often hilarious detail, like when the Five try to wrestle a key from a bird's grip, or when one of them is grabbed by an irritated rat-like creature. Another amusing sequence has a genie granting quirky wishes, while you get a whole new reference point for the iconic phrase, "Houston, we have a problem" as matters progress. Of course, you can choose to remain singularly focused on your goals, but refraining from getting fully immersed in this merry, vibrant world would take away a considerable chunk of the overall charm of this game.
Right from the pretty opening cinematic, Botanicula is a visual treat in numerous big and small ways. The translucent home-tree has visible, delicate veins running through it – you can see the sap flowing and cellular organisms swimming inside – and is host to about a hundred species of flora and fauna, catalogued into an encyclopaedia of animated photo-cards as you encounter each. There are buzzing, hovering bee-like spheroids, assorted crawlies, toadstools and fungi, flying fish, crabs, frogs, hummingbirds and woodpeckers, snails, slugs, ants, bioluminescent underground and underwater life-forms, and even a gentle giant tortoise, plus a terrifying flagellated protozoan guard of a parasite chamber. Each creature has a distinct appearance, personality and behaviour, like the long-suffering mother of an infant something, a pesky rattle-bug that wants to keep playing with the Five, and the friendly rotund critters that have a fully-appointed colony replete with a theatre and a bar. Not everyone is friendly, though the villains are easy to spot, being distinctly uglier than the friendlies, with jagged teeth for added effect. The parasites themselves are drawn like spiders, with a nebulous spherical black body and stretchy, grabby thin black legs, while the more virulent versions are an angry red in colour, and sometimes furry as well. Their simplistic design doesn't detract from their ferocity by even a degree; every time the Five encounter one, you too want to scamper away as fast as they do.
The two-dimensional screens boast unique and fabulous art which is exceedingly simple in execution – often just lines and fuzzy blobs, but astonishing in the amount of detail included. Hazy backgrounds create an illusion of depth, and colours are used with superb skill to incite vivid sensations in the absence of speech and descriptions. You'll never be left wondering if a certain area is 'safe' or not (though there are no fatal circumstances to worry about), but you may pause often to bask in the surreal settings. The upper regions of the tree are done in rosy pinks, soft yellows and lush greens, but once you get to the lower half, destroyed by the parasites, the graphics morph into a disquieting collection of drained leaves, rotten berries, pathetic carcasses of tree-creatures, and the reddish-gray, withered body of the tree itself, though given the cartoony aesthetic of the game, even this can best be described as beautifully ugly. The underground scenes, though dark, are done mostly in warm browns and golds, while the claustrophobic confines of the blood red-and-black insides of the infection induce true horror when one of the Five is stranded within. The 1440 x 900 presentation offers the options of displaying at either 100% or 60%, in full-screen or windowed modes, but are bounded by black edges at any resolution higher than the native one.
Like the art, the abundant animation is also first rate, though never overtly extravagant. Physical gestures are excellently adapted, like when the Five creep stealthily past dangerous areas, or shyly ask the genie for their wishes. The supporting cast is equally well treated, whether weeping their eyes out or sulking or even waiting impatiently for the Five to do something for them. The movement of the quick, multi-legged parasites is scarily aggressive, especially the pulsating motion as they relentlessly suck up sap from the tree. This is depicted with remarkable simplicity of both graphics and sound, and yet is convincingly horrific when experienced from the perspective of the tiny tree-creatures, making you feel an anxious urge to save their tree. Casual shocks are also scattered about as the Five inadvertently encounter the not-so-friendly other residents, and there's a heart-stopping moment when they fall several stories towards the gaping maws of a beast. A cute, brief sequence even features Easter eggs of Amanita's earlier releases, Samorost and Machinarium.
As expected with a thriving ecosystem, sounds abound here too. A medley of realistic life-sounds like scratches, buzzes, cricks, and hoots enliven the atmosphere. The critters communicate in chipmunk-y gibberish, but are emotive enough that you always understand what they are saying, or at least feeling. Lullabies, chants, shrieks of joy, cries of despair, shocked intakes of breath, hysterical tears, the soft clicking of the Five's footsteps – each sound adds to the overall ambience of levity or danger. Botanicula also features a custom soundtrack by Czech alternative band DVA, and the background score is indeed quite different from the usual staple. The music is often very quiet, a soothing (or tense, when appropriate) hum almost lost amidst the chitter-chatter, but elevates to euphoric drumbeats when challenges are surmounted, and dissolves into melancholic wailing during particularly unsettling sequences. The band also gets a direct plug when a wish grants you the chance to choose the instruments of the track being played for you, and there's quite a bit of bonus entertainment like an impromptu jam by a frog quartet and a weird jukebox-thingy.
Really, Botanicula is a remarkable game in almost all aspects. Its inimitable art and styling, though never ostentatious, is spectacular, subtly captivating you in concert with the unusual background score. The animation is smooth, detailed and realistic, sometimes disturbingly so, and the game uses its vast repertoire of colours and sounds with great efficiency to create a surreal world that completely immerses you, lingering even after you've finished playing. However, while the Five are endearing enough, they are not fleshed out adequately, either individually or as a group, to be truly memorable in their own right. The experiment-oriented gameplay format, totally bereft of direction and occasionally demanding considerable out-of-the-box thinking and some adept mouse-handling, may not be everyone's cup of tea, and may frustrate those unwilling to spend the time and effort warranted even for seemingly-pedestrian tasks.
Those who do persevere, however, are in for an incredibly imaginative, action-packed, and rewarding journey that covers a hundred-plus unique characters and nearly as many tasks within a span of about four hours. The most engaging aspect of this game, however, which binds together the excellent production quality, creative gameplay, and diverse characters, is its soul, the indefinable “it” factor that makes you feel as if you're a part of the environment and inspires you to want to save the home-tree and its inhabitants, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Botanicula lovingly spins a tale of good versus evil, but it's not only that; it's a quirky, fun adventure game built with evident affection and attention, and is sure to task your mind and win your heart if you take the initiative to explore its vibrant world the old-fashioned way.
|Digital||April 19 2012||Amanita Design|