Amanita Games get indie developer love
“Point and click adventure games are dead” carries no weight, going by Amanita Games’ release library. The Czech indie developer churned out five short point and click games between 2003 and 2008, and more recently, the full-length hit Machinarium in 2009, and most recently on April 19, Botanicula.
And, Botanicula has won over the wallets of a lot of people already, despite some awkwardness between pre-orders on GOG and the Humble Bundle.
Botanicula’s largest competition is really only other Amanita titles, as other point’n’click titles, like Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP (which Jeroen reviewed earlier this week) appeal to a different audience. As their website puts it, Botanicula is a “relaxed game perfect for hardcore gamers, their partners, families and seniors.”
With such a large target audience, reviewing Botanicula requires an adjusted metric. Expectations will be different for every type of person who picks it up, so I aim to look at Botanicula’s ability to appeal to a diverse audience, as well as its merit against other Amanita titles.
From the very beginning, Botanicula is a simple game. In its opening moments, you’re introduced to the general shape of the story – the continuation of life in Botanicula’s ecosystem depends on the germination of the large glowing seeds of the trees on which all the species of the forest live. However, just as the seeds are about to fall from the tree, a giant spider comes and sucks the life out of all but one of them, which drops from the tree just in time and lands in the care of the first of the main characters, Mr. Lantern.
Mr. Lantern travels in a big whooping mob with his four other plant and fungus friends. There’s Mr. Poppyhead, Mr. Twig, Mr. Feather, and Mrs. Mushroom, and though you almost never control any of them independently and they have no real spoken dialog besides various whoops, cheers, and nervous gasps, they pack a lot of charm. The gang navigates from screen to screen, helping various bugs, small animals, and plants. Any character which is supposed to be speaking talks in a garbled series of mouth-noises, while a speech bubble communicates the gist of what they’re trying to get across. Instead of crippling understanding of the objective, Botanicula’s lack of dialog centers the game in its simplicity.
The general aim of the game is to help all of the characters in each zone while collecting quest items as well as cards which increase your score at the end of the game. The concept of quest items and cards is pretty badly explained at the start of the game, and stands out as the one moment where it would have been forgivable to break Amanita’s no-text-or-dialog rule. For a moment, without an understanding of the incentive behind collecting cards, it’s easy to form a mindset of, “if all I’m going to get for playing with minor characters is a stupid card, I might as well not do it at all!” And then a giant, One-Man-Band bug drops out of the sky and is thrown into hilarious, clattering, whomping disarray as it’s chased offscreen, and you remember that the incentive has nothing to do with cards or points anyway.
The core of the point’n’click genre is the puzzles, and while Botanicula has a whole ecosystem of them, I have to admit I have mixed feelings about the difficulty level. Puzzles are sort of organized into informal groupings – the easiest being small creatures which you can simply click on a couple of times to watch a small animation play out. These are cute, and the character designs are extremely charming, but not particularly rewarding as puzzles. They’re the sort of thing that can make your mouth pop open in pleasant surprise, and they really showcase Amanita’s ability to make even a mushroom heartwarming, but they’re not really “puzzles,” as such.
The second tier of difficulty is the meat of the game – the puzzles which stand in the way of important quest items. Botanicula will have you hopping around tiny planets, traveling around in submarines, and exploring a little chestnut village. But for all that, they aren’t really what I’d call “difficult.” And that’s okay – a game which wants to appeal to small children and non-gamers in general should definitely have a more welcoming difficulty level. But coming off of Machinarium, I was hoping for another mind-bender. Instead, Botanicula relies heavily on trial-and-error, and for someone who might classify his or herself as a “hardcore gamer,” Botanicula begins to accidentally accelerate to a sprinter’s pace.
Any given hang-up tends to have less to do with the thought process of solving a puzzle and more to do with happening upon a missing pixel or puzzle element accidentally. The second tier also contains most of the moments where you can play one of the members of the gang individually, but never really as a process of solving a puzzle. Rather, Botanicula has the player hazard a guess as to which character will be able to perform a task, and it’s almost more rewarding to be wrong because you’re treated to a comical sketch of the failure, and then prompted to try again.
Botanicula really has more in common with Amanita’s Samorost and Samorost 2, as its puzzles are more of a slow progression of correct interactions than a lengthy problem to think on. So to those who aren’t new to gaming, I might recommend they play Machinarium first. To a more casual player, the difficulty of these puzzles is spot on.
The third puzzle tier has less to do with difficulty and more to do with the meta-game: collection of quest items in a zone. In most of Botanicula’s zones, the player has to collect 3-14 quest items by collecting every item in the area. They serve as a checklist for all the things that need doing, and for someone who’s played a decent amount of point and click adventure games, they irk me a little. Puzzle games, both of yore and today, always deliver content as a series of logical steps – do Puzzle A, get rewarded with Item A, use Item A on Puzzle B, get Item B, etcetera. It helps to center the player and prevent them from forgetting what they’re trying to accomplish. I can understand Amanita’s motivation – Botanicula is, again, meant for a larger audience that doesn’t want to think about a puzzle in the long-term, but it sacrifices a lot of depth and immersion by stripping this puzzle flow down to only a couple of moments later in the game.
The meta-puzzle aspect is also hurt by Botanicula’s map, which is literally a poorly drawn sketch on a leaf, and almost entirely useless. Between Botanicula’s tangles of branches and circular tunnels, it’s easy to get turned around and not know where the next quest item is. Some kind of directional guide wouldn’t have gone amiss, as despite Botanicula’s ability to ooze charm, the thirtieth time the gang went “whoopa!” over a hole as I stumbled around the map in confusion, I kind of wanted to shove Mr. Twig up whoever drew the map and see how chipper he was for deciding to be cute.
Despite my irreverence for that particular aspect of Botanicula’s design, everything else Amanita did to bring their world to life is stunning, especially, and most famously, the music. Czech alternative band DVA lent their talents to the game, and the soundtrack is great. Just take a listen to Botanicula’s leading track, Juchu. It screams joy, politely mentions indie, and then squirms with happiness. It’s great. My only qualm – and yes, I’ve found another qualm, here – I think Botanicula managed to underuse its music. For the most part, Botanicula understates its tracks, swapping them out most of the time for a quiet recording of birds and bugs to allow the sound effects of each character on-screen to stand out. I understand the message – Botanicula is a game about nature, and as such there should be nature noises, but after teasing me repeatedly with DVA’s kick ass tracks, I feel like I’d rather just open a window and mix the music with birdsong myself than bear quiet moments.
Ultimately, the decision to play Botanicula has a lot to do with what a player’s expectations are. Botanicula is an extremely cheerful title, one that celebrates nature and friendship, but to a dab hand at puzzles or someone with too little patience, it can be hurt by its own player-friendly practices. However, in this “dying” genre, diversification should always be encouraged. After all, what’s more important in an ecosystem than evolution to change?
What’s the verdict? 4 our of 5 stars.
Botanicula was released on April 19th, 2012 for Windows, Mac, and Linux. Review is based on the Windows PC version.
by Emma Atlas