When you think of a witch, you probably envision the iconic image of an old woman over a cauldron, stirring in a number of strange sounding ingredients as her potion bubbles and brews. They work with rare plants of all kinds, from the medicinal to the deadly, using the plant’s special properties to work their magic. Stil, have you ever wondered where they get all these fascinating plants from, anyway?
Strange Horticulture puts you in the shoes of a horticulturist that supplies the town of Undermere with said fascinating plants. Each day, customers arrive at your window and tell you of what ails them, whether it be insomnia, rashes, or even poisoning, and you provide them with a plant to cure their ills. However, some people aren’t just here for themselves; they’re asking you to help them look into the mysterious deaths occurring around the town, or into curious plants growing in little known places.
With each customer, letter, and clue you receive, you grow a little closer to understanding the deep, supernatural history running through Undermere.
A puzzle game through and through, your main task in Strange Horticulture is to identify plants using your trusty book of buds and bulbs. This may sound easy, but don’t be fooled; the illustrations may only show a specific part of a plant, and the descriptions found in your book may not match the descriptions that appear when you bring the plant to the microscope for a closer look. There are often multiple plants that match a description. Sometimes, you aren’t given the name of a plant at all, but its use, and you have to dig through your guide to find what you need.
Don’t worry too much if you get it wrong the first time; just try not to make it a habit. Unless you want to put your shattered mind back together. Yes, that is a real puzzle you have to solve when you misidentify plants too many times. So, make sure you’re labeling your plants as you identify them.
In addition to identifying plants, you’ll also receive letters daily. These will usually contain locations of new plants or bits of information that are needed to move forward in the story. When you receive a letter with a location, you’ll have to wait for your “Will to Explore” meter to be filled – which can be done through watering your plants, helping customers, or receiving them in letters – before you can travel there. The locations are straightforward sometimes, like a specific town or forest, but other times, you may have to play a game of trial and error to figure out what part of a mountain is exactly a mile northwest from a town.
It can be a little tedious when you keep turning up nothing despite being in the (supposedly) right place, but don’t let it get you down; a new plant, book entry, or mystery awaits you when you finally solve the puzzle.
None of the puzzles are soul-shatteringly difficult. The game has a great mix of puzzles that hit every difficulty level, so you get a few easier tasks between demanding ones. It also stresses the consequences of your actions; sometimes, customers will come in and ask for one of two plants for a certain condition and it’s essential that you choose the right one, lest they get upset and report your shop for dealing in the occult. When you aren’t careful in identifying plants, your feeling of dread grows until it literally shatters your mind and you must put it back together by matching the shards of a circular sigil. These consequences result in different endings to the story, so feel free to do these things to get new endings, if that’s your thing. I definitely did.
Despite staying in one area most of the time, it never feels too boring or static. The weather changes and brings new ambient noise, each time you pet your cat it purrs, and the plants all sway gently, giving a weird feeling of peace to an otherwise grim and strange setting. It all mingles to create a neat, gothic aura. Of course, this is meant to compliment the occult mystery plot of the game, and while the story is good, it does tend to stumble just a bit due to the game’s short runtime. It almost feels like all the bits and pieces didn’t quite meet their end, which is unfortunate. I like to think that while the general plot may be a bit rocky, the visual storytelling is stunning, and it definitely makes up for any rough patches.
The user interface is really excellent. Despite constantly receiving letters and scraps of paper and little clue cards, your desk is never cluttered (unless you make it that way.) There’s a small drawer off to the side with compartments for each item you use, and at the end of the day, the game automatically puts them back for you and archives the papers for things you’ve completed. It’s just a neat detail that makes the game a little more user friendly, and I think that it’s also an interesting choice narratively; many games like this embrace the clutter to enhance the feeling of unease and anxiety, but Strange Horticulture decided to do the opposite.
Strange Horticulture is a game that knows how to use ambience to pull the audience in. As you work through the puzzles and spend time labeling plants and searching the map for new flora to provide to your town’s odd residents, the game continually pulls in new pieces of its mysterious plot and finds new ways to keep you on edge, whether it be failing or having townspeople threaten to expose you. For all you witches and wizards out there that enjoy a good mystery with a bit of morbidity and magic, I recommend setting up shop with this one.