Even after many years of playing video games, I still sometimes come across some I don’t quite know how to describe. It’s an exciting thing, but also deeply inconvenient when part of your job requires you to, well, describe games. Strange Horticulture calls itself a puzzle, but it isn’t a puzzle in any way I associate with the word.
You are the horticulturist, nameless and mostly voiceless, welcoming patrons into a shop that consists of many shelves of different vibrantly coloured plants and flowers, as well as a desk with a drawer. As a player, you can interact with the desk and its contents, as well as plants, of course.
The core gameplay loop is rather simple – clicking on the bell on your counter simulates a customer calling on you, requesting a plant for medicinal use or other purposes. The plants in Strange Horticulture have all been created for the game, and there’s a lot of love in their individual design, both visually and in their descriptions.
At first you don’t know the names of the plants on your shelves, so you check in your trusty plant encyclopedia and make an educated guess based on the visual description, or the description of a plant’s properties. You can get an additional hint by looking at the plant through your microscope. Once you can match a plant to a name, you can stick a little label on it.
Once a day, the postman brings you a letter. Your post often comes from benefactors traveling around Strange Horticulture’s surprisingly big world – people who have come across a plant and describe where you can find it. Letters, and fulfilling tasks in the shop raises your will-to-travel bar. Once it’s full you can get the map out and explore by choosing a location. Often hints to interesting locations will be vague so you have another thing to guess at.
Strange Horticulture isn’t a puzzle, it’s a guessing game, literally. It’s the simulation of a fantasy job in a fantastical world. Much like how niceplay games’ Potion Craft is an alchemy simulator, I would like to call Strange Horticulture a magical horticulturist simulator – possibly a magical florist sim, since you don’t engage in much actual horticulture like growing plants or making medicine.
As someone who can’t follow even Google maps directions, trying to find something by staring at a map is vaguely unpleasant, but finding secret places and being rewarded with a new plant is still satisfying. You can zoom in on the screen using your mouse wheel at any point in order to take a closer look at the map or check the features of a plant, which is simply the best accessibility feature for a UI-based game like this, but the penalty for making mistakes, in the form of an increasing dread meter that slowly fills, is never heavy.
Strange Horticulture is a slow exploration of a mildly strange world – a general veneer of unease that’s easy enough to accept: a ghost here, a witch there. Your days in the shop lead towards a bigger mystery, but the overall quite meandering pace of the game never gives way to urgency. This is a good game to play in small sessions, simply to take in its atmospheric writing and pore over a map. My only regret is that I wish there’d be more to do. The potential is there, and I would have liked to manage my plants and my shop more, even at the loss of some of that relaxed atmosphere. Alas, Strange Horticulture isn’t that kind of easily definable game, but its very own strange thing instead.
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