Nature is a perfect backdrop for a game about harmony. Botanicula (now on Steam), a point-and-click exploration game from Amanita Design, extends that theme beyond the story of five tiny tree dwellers journeying to save their home from parasitic spider-creatures. From a design perspective, the game seeks to balance the pleasantries of music with delightful puzzles and exploration. Botanicula starts and ends strong like the great tree once was, but it’s the middle that sends everything spiralling into discord.
The indie game lacks textual and spoken dialogue, letting players enjoy the scenery and discover the teeming, symbiotic life without forcing them to sit through lengthy expositions. This quality gives Botanicula a remarkable sense of flow, emphasizing the behavior and interaction of these creatures without human speech butting in. Regardless, these creatures do communicate with each other — through visual storytelling, humorous mumbling, and other charming sounds. The sounds of the tree meld together to form a sweet music, and its endearing tones will easily make you smile.
Gameplay starts off simple enough. By navigating the thick arms of the tree and mingling with those you encounter, you’ll learn the basics and uncover the secrets hiding behind leaves or awaiting the press of a mouse. Your only obstacles are the red-eyed, spindly legged parasites that suck the leaves dry and prey on your innocent neighbors. The more good you do, the more courageous and bold you’ll become until not even the most venomous foe can hurt you.
Like any game of this type, the puzzles require a bit of thought and creativity, but while Botanicula starts as a lightweight experience, it soon turns into an overgrown tangle of maze-like areas, fetch quests, and unsatisfying trial-and-error challenges. The labyrinths of diverting paths only make exploring the beautifully drawn environments a tiresome affair. Miss even a tiny speck or neglect to click a miniscule spot in the background, and you’ll be backtracking aimlessly for what feels like hours, armed with a map that refuses to spill the world’s secrets.
One section of the game actually asks you to safely find and acquire over a dozen birds so that you can harness their power of flight and lift off into the sky… only to plummet to the earth when a parasite shakes you from your seat. When the pointless affair — which consists of either tapping each room wildly or trading residents supposedly adequate substitutes for what would make a delicious roast fowl dinner — finally ended, I sat wondering whether the spiders had leached all the charm from the game, too. Botanicula was no longer the game I fell in love with. Where had all its effortless fun and energy gone?
After a few more rounds of the same frustrating hide-and-seek gameplay, I reached what was clearly the last stretch. The game recovered most of the simple but smart innovation it had lost, but it still made me grind through a weird little click-and-shoot segment where one hit meant starting over… ridiculously, from the beginning, without a checkpoint.
At the end, the creatures you meet will dance and sing in celebration, but chances are you’ll lack the heart and desire to join them. Botanicula is still a good game, and one definitely worth playing, but the more complicated it gets, the less of its original spirit it retains.
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