Release date: January 21, 2022
Developer: Bad Viking
Publisher: Iceberg Interactive
Music: Dane Forrest Obuchowski, Francesco Giovannangelo, Chris Alley Yenney
Platforms: PC, Nintendo Switch
Genres: Puzzle, simulation, narrative adventure
Modes: Single player
Categories: Mysterious and Spooky, The Occult
Strange Horticulture is a well-balanced, remarkably atmospheric puzzle game that exemplifies simple, high-quality craftsmanship in game design.
You play as an unnamed individual living in the dreary town of Undermere, where the streets teem with “stench and clamour” , the skies are frequently darkened with rain, and everyday life is immersed in magic and mystery. Following the death of your uncle, you’ve inherited Strange Horticulture, a shop specializing in uncommon plants with a variety of uses—some are ornamental (e.g. Trimblehuff, a popular wedding decoration), many serve practical purposes (e.g. Thum, used as a fragrance in soaps and candles), others have occult properties (e.g. Long Verecund, for breaking curses), and a few are deadly poisons (e.g. the aptly named Devil’s Nightcap). Most of your customers have mundane needs, but others require your expertise for more pressing matters, such as investigating a suspicious death or contending with disturbing visions. As your knowledge and botanical collection grow, you become entangled in an ominous series of events that has the whole of Undermere in its grip, and you must play an integral role in determining the outcome. The power to save lives or snuff them out is in your hands (and on Strange Horticulture’s shelves).
Gameplay consists of two types of puzzles: discerning which plant(s) can be used to fulfill a request or complete a task, and solving map-based riddles to pinpoint the locations of new plants to add to your stock. Both variants are mentally stimulating without ever crossing into “frustratingly difficult” territory, which allows the game to remain a relaxing, unhurried experience. There is room for a bit of trial and error, with incorrect guesses—selecting the wrong plants or inconsequential map coordinates—augmenting your “Rising Dread” or depleting your “Will to Explore,” respectively (luckily, both meters can easily be restored to their optimal levels). As the storyline progresses, the challenges incorporate additional parts, such as a laboratory for brewing plant-based elixirs and odd devices used to reveal more location-related clues.
Strange Horticulture’s setup is minimalist but effective: there are shelves for your plants, a desk on which you can place tools and materials, a drawer for storing the items you’re not currently using, and a window where you speak with customers (this is also where Hellebore, the store’s resident cat, likes to nap). By the end of the game, there are 77 charmingly illustrated plants to gather, identify, and organize as you see fit. They range from fragrant blooms to putrid mushrooms, delicate blossoms to hardy fronds, vibrant reds to deep purples, and everything in between—in short, they’re a collector’s delight. Each specimen has a brief corresponding entry in the Strange Book of Plants, the in-game horticultural index that you gradually add pages to.
From a visual standpoint, you never really leave your cozy shop—all exploration phases are conveyed via snippets of text supplemented by modest pen-and-ink-style drawings rather than any sort of physical navigation around the land surrounding Undermere. These narrations are succinct, compelling, and well-suited to a game that puts a great deal of emphasis on the written word overall, with letters, recipes, book pages, and notes all complementing a story that unfolds like a mix between a diary and a dark fairytale.
Nearly every aspect of Strange Horticulture, from the measured, melancholy background music to the tarot-like character portraits, contributes to the game’s ambience flawlessly and gives the impression of clean, uncomplicated excellence. Nothing feels unfinished, out of place, or superfluous, and the result is an immensely satisfying game with the look and feel of a modern classic. Strange Horticulture is sure to enchant anyone with an inner detective, botanist, or occultist, and it will doubtlessly appear on many “best of” lists for years to come.
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