Reviews 1

REVIEW: Strange Horticulture

I ate these darned herbs and they cured my plant-blindness.

It’s mid-January in the arse end of England, and I take a walk. I’m wrapped in everything I own that’s made of wool to baffle a stiff south-westerly. I’m looking for birds: kestrels, mostly, whose superpower is to hover immobile in the air even in the strongest gale. When I join the cliff path it’s eyes down for seals, though there are none. Almost home, I catch the racket of a distant rookery, dominating the boughs of a tree which is, frankly, tired of their crap. I barely notice the plants. Obviously, right? The hedgerows are asleep. Cracked brown brambles, some sort of ashy structure, leafless bushes, one rotten berry on one rattled branch. That’s nothing.

If this chunky boy ain’t a Forest Camphry, I ain’t a strange horticulturalist

Don’t worry, I’m not here to share the story of a cold walk: I’m making a point. I like a bit of nature spotting, but I barely ever give a spare moment to things that don’t have faces. And that’s not my fault, it turns out. There’s a scientific term for this: plant blindness. It is, according to Wikipedia, a form of cognitive bias, which in its broadest meaning, is a human tendency to ignore plant species. Back in caveperson times, there were more pressing issues than pressing flowers. There was a tiger galloping over the horizon and a pack of hippos chasing your sister, or whatever. Faced in nature, as we are, with a hundred million points of data assaulting our eyeballs, we have to ignore almost everything, and plants tend to be included in this list alongside gravel and wealth inequality.

So. Two paragraphs down and I haven’t mentioned a video game. Here we go, then: I picked up Strange Horticulture desiring a kooky, cosy winter game to be played in front of a crackling YouTube video of a fireplace. And it was so much more.

You play as the unnamed proprietor of a sort of apothecary, collecting and classifying an ever-growing collection of remarkably evocative plants, and then doling them out to the local community to solve their sinister problems: Henchuck to cause temporary memory loss, Clavilia to open locks, Wild Cole as a potent hangover cure. Most of the time a customer appears, gives you the name of the plant required and it’s your job to provide this.

This is absolutely not a resource management stress-simulator. Cooking Mamas are not welcome in this shop. You don’t run out of a certain herb, customers don’t get angry if you take twenty minutes to dig out their stock, you don’t get a grade for efficiency. It’s a puzzle game, pure and simple, the perfect intersection between Wilmot’s Warehouse and Papers Please. You spend your time solving deduction puzzles; linking the descriptions in your botany books to the un-tagged herbs on your shelf, following cryptic letters to hidden map locations, using a range of arcane items to uncover nicely-placed secrets. Nothing feels unfair, there are no huge leaps of faith. You can’t progress without providing each herb to each sequential customer, which means you’re never left with that classic adventure game problem, wondering if you have the right gear and information needed to solve this particular puzzle. There are enough ‘a-ha!’ moments to never leave you bored throughout this 7-hour experience. You’re left to make your own organisation system, and by golly you’ll need one if you’re going to service the demanding and problematic people of Undermere.

Dunno who this Dendrew is, but I like the cut of their wokery.

There’s plenty more to mention: an overarching murder plot, the elixir system, the multiple endings, the game-over screen that is itself a puzzle, the barely-pettable cat, but really it’s the plants that stuck with me. You examine each with the finest-toothed comb. Leaf shape, petal texture, the different scents, the thickness of a stamen. The game constantly draws you back to the calm, comforting, vaguely ambiguous task of classification. It’s the bread and butter of this experience, and it’s never easy, never impossible, never not satisfying.

After finishing the game, I went out for a walk. A gorse bush, sheltered from the wind, had begun to put out flowers from between its buxom spines. The fragile yellow petals bore a soft vanilla scent. A patch of snowdrops sat about modestly, tiny white tears not quite dripping free of their retreating sepals. Two yellow-gilled mushrooms had emerged from a cattle-roughed field corner, slightly concave, slightly nibbled by slugs. Can’t tell you if there were any kestrels. I had my head down the entire time. Plant blindness: cured?

Strange Horticulture was developed by Bad Viking, and published on 21st January 2022 by Iceberg Interactive.

It’s available on Steam and Epic, with a temporary 10% off.

1 Comment

  • Reply
    Steven Barry
    Jan 30, 2022 12:40 pm

    Great review! The game sounds perfect for a chilled Sunday.

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