Tuesday 31 July 2012

Botanicula - Critical Review

A small independent Czech game developer founded by Jakub Dvorský (click here to find out who's part of the team). They got some attention after winning a WebbyAward for Samorost 2. Later getting some attention for Machinarium, though the attention is starting to catch up again after the release of Botanicula. It was debuted as a stand alone game but also in a bundle. This was a fantastic deal, it consisted of many of Amanita Design's games (the developers of Botanicula). Debuted on the Humble Bundle website; these fine game enthusiasts every so often sell a bunch of games at an amazing price of whatever you want. So when the Humble Botaniucla Debut was offered, it was a bit of an Amanita Jackpot. I'll get into more detail on the Humble Bundle in my review of their site.

The main story line is about saving the world, but the world is a tree. You start by meeting the hazelnut and all the other characters (see to the right).You find out that something is eating away, killing all the colourful life around the tree by sucking away its colour. You command this hazelnut and its group of creatures to try to solve problems and escape the danger while looking for a way to save the tree.

Amanita Design has a name based of the iconic genus of mushrooms known as Amanita. There are over 600 species of agracis including a lot of quite toxic mushrooms that should probably be avoided on a pizza. The iconic amanita muscaria, commonly known as the fly agaric, was the specific choice by Amanita Design for their logo. Though a cartoon version it's still pretty clear that it's the red domed mushroom with those deadly white specks. When people think of poisonous mushrooms it's the common picture. The games name Botanicula is a play on the word botanical. Botanical just means relating to plants, since the whole game is played on a planet, it has creatures seemingly inspired by the very ecosystem of a tree or flower. 

The art style is something quirky. With creative creatures all around (see to the left)
the interesting spin on the normal things we see on trees and planets is vast. From characters based off peanuts, to bugs with one wing, characters designed for this story are usually quite adorable. There are some creepy creatures as well (I won't show any more because I don't want to spoil) but to all of you testosterone filled readers there won't be any violence. Amanita made sure that you would need to think about how to get through the game, adding in several puzzles, and designing the tree with many mazes. What that has to due with a lack of violence is, no combat. That may seem friendly and inviting until you want to pull your hair out from one of the puzzles. They probably aren't too hard but I still had to get a paper and pen out to make notes. Regardless if that happens to you I'm the one reviewing the game so just consider that the puzzles get more difficult as you progress. Starting at the top of the tree you try to make your way down, exploring more and venturing farther. A map you get near the beginning helps you keep track and find your way around the numerous mazes.
As you can see it's a leaf that seems to have the outline of whatever part of the tree you're at. Every map will only show you areas you've already been to so it forces exploration. Which in this case isn't tedious, it's a lot of fun because the level designers put a lot of interesting ideas into each section (at one point even plugging in a cameo from another game). The leaf maps can only show a certain amount of area at a time. Once you have filled it all up by exploring the available area you essentially transition to a new level and that's when you get a new blank leaf to scout. One could think of the tree as the game, the leafs as levels, and the little sections of the leaf you uncover as missions/ puzzles/ quests you need to complete. The presentation is done fantastically with a prodigious pallet of colour. From the pictures already one can see the variety. With so many bright colours it's easy to catch the eyes of the player, though they make sure to not forget the darker tones for emphasising death. The core problem after all is the colour that was sucked away by the monsters (the colour representing death).

Conveying what is good and bad based on tone is pretty common with the old white versus dark idea, but these developers are more artistic than that. Amanita knows not to complicate things and allows anyone to understand the unique world they created. Humour is implemented well, hooking the player in along with all those previous factors. The adorable protagonists you have along your side are usually the catalyst for amusement. The game is a point and click, this means you as the player have to engage everything. So at times when ever you explore or encounter a new creature the reactions from the main characters is usually a silly one. The amount of surprise they emit often translates over to the player (a bit subjective but hey, I'm limited in my statistics funding) which causes a lot of fun and laughable moments. Detail is immense, though even with all that detail the game is not realistic. The game tries to present a unique artistic style. With a lot of perspective shots, depth of field, and lighting done in a way resembling some high quality photography/ cinematography.

The hole game is played on branches of the tree, these branches are a light green colour that is see through (see to the left). Other areas exist that aren't on the branches but for a large amount of the time you'll see the semi-transparent branches. Inside of the branches you can see the veins of the tree and little organisms moving around. Adding in attention to little detail like that make the environment of the game a very stunning and a dynamic one.

Mechanics in this game are quite simple. As most point and click adventures it mainly deals with just clicking in the direction you want to move in and clicking on whatever you want to interact with. The neat thing about Botanicula is its constant variety in puzzles and how things are supposed to be done. Having such simple mechanics means the real test is that of the brain; playing the game starts to feel like second nature. It engages, the game makes every trial you deal with have unique obstacles. The mind is the real tool, having fluid and straightforward mechanics work great as you try to take on each task as if it were a jigsaw puzzle in your hands.

That transitions well into the difficulty and cleverness of the game, which essentially means the puzzles. The cleverness is defiantly progressive. The game starts of with very basic puzzles that teach you how to play as you play, not a tutorial though, just good conveyance of the mechanics, though this shouldn't be a surprise, since they are so simple. Slowly adding more elements to the puzzling system, the game challenges you the further you make your way through the story. Some examples of this would be the implementation of backtracking. Not to say that you have to grind but instead there are unique events that you can interact with and complete that will in turn help unlock further content in different areas (sure you have to collect things at times but every time you try to increase that counter to reach the goal something new/ interesting well happen making you want to continue on - looking forward to what will happen next).
To the left there is a good example. Here you have to find all the birds missing for someone and once you do you can move on to the next area. The issue with that is that just making you grind to find the birds is not innovative at all. Amanita has instead implemented the much more fun method of getting a player to play a hole new sub puzzle or mini game (found within each little hut) to get each missing bird. This takes the generic concept of grinding and forms it into a quality filled mission with several objectives, that in the end are all about progressing through the game. Now that sounds appealing. Instead of dishing out content similar to the way WoW (World of Warcraft) does with quests that make you gather 10 chickens by killing a bunch of monsters 10 times over. Amanita instead dishes out content with quality in mind that every “quest” is pieced together with interesting content (attaining each chicken will be different and require different thinking).

The soundtrack is fantastic. DVA was the band who designed the soundtrack (their name appears in the picture to the right). The points when the sounds kick in or when you activate them usually help shift the mood a lot so the soundtrack has a lot of variety to offer because the game tries to convey the morphing emotions the characters feel. A lot of the sounds in the songs are so odd I couldn't even figure out what instruments were being used frequently. A similar style seems to connect all the songs but I couldn't describe it with just a genre. Songs like “Nocni Jazz” use ambient sounds very effectively to set a mood but even if they seem simple there's a lot going on. In that song one might think ambient as just really simple, but as the song title says there is a lot of jazz in the song, and a lot of jazz instruments are being used to make some of the ambience too. Interesting mixtures such as this with very rare uses of sounds make the experience refreshing. The lyrics are used wonderfully, since the game has no narration (I'll talk more about that soon), or at least no actual words are used, the sounds that come from the mouth are just that, sounds, not words. Like the instruments, a lot of quick noises are flowing together from the singers to make a melody, and this puts a very equal amount of importance on the lyrics themselves, not taking on a overly important role. No singer would be at the front of the band, because the attention would always be switching to what's going on in the back. The music is also interactive. When playing the game pointing and clicking sometimes causes extra events to occur. A few times this would even cause sounds to play and if you figured out what to do, the sounds would actually function as pieces of a puzzle. Once you solved it just like unlocking a new area, the game awards you the complete song. Just as you figured out how the song should play the game follows your lead and plays the rest. This sort of twist to a point and click really show the desire to take a simple genre, that people see as limited in so many ways, and introduce aspects probably not predicted. It emphasises the amount of creativity that was put into the game when people have a prejudice towards a certain style or genre because it's so restricting, but are then met with something like Botanicula. The lack of features one thinks of will never match the amount of possibilities that could exist.

Narration is all done through imagery, there is no speech. This works very well because without worrying about any of the writing the developers were able to focus on a lot of the other aspects, like the visuals (it's why they are so detailed). One might think that they are just limiting themselves even further by making a point and click game lacking in any dialogue, but in this case the limitations were a catalyst. They helped bring more attention to other parts of the game. The story itself is really simple but the way it's portrayed is quite amusing. The characters constantly meet new creatures that you have to help or run from. Each making their own unique sounds and when they talk to each other it's more of a mumbling of sounds rather then actual speech. The game really tries to go for the cute feeling, because later on after spending so much time with these innocent creatures you get attach to them, and the surreal world they have been put into. It reminds me of a baby, unable to speak, also you feel a need to help it, because your the one with all the brain power, you have the ability to help the baby stay safe and grow up. In Botanicula you have the ability to help the main characters get through the tree and proceed to safety.

Settings, in terms of resolution options, well it has the classic low, medium, and high. So not very informative, but the game is small enough that most computers should have no problems with running it. It gives an option for windowed or full screen and if you choose windowed you can switch between a 100% fill of the screen or a 60% size. 100% size with full screen is just a bigger version of the game that doesn't actually fit the hole screen (unless you have a small monitor [such as and iPad]). It has a set resolution it can be stretched to. I can't inform you on what that cap is because it's only given in terms of percent. The only other feature is the choice to choose between languages and they do offer a good amount of choices from English, Spanish, French, Polish, Italian, Japanese, and more. There aren't many settings available due to the simplicity of the game, it doesn't try to overclock your CPU (Central Processing Unit) or run ultra high-definition graphics, so there is no need for pushing your computers limits with extra settings. Even with those limitations the game still looks quite nice, even if it's got a small resolution.

I was surprised when I found out the game was developed in Adobe Flash, since the game is actually one of the better looking games I've seen in a while, even with all of it's limitations. It would have been nice it the resolution was higher and I could have had an even more detailed experience but I'm not sure if that's just greedy. The soundtrack works really well as you move through out the game and even when I'm not playing it, the FLAC version (and other formats) you can purchase is wonderfully composed. The game works great, runs really fluently and has a lot of interesting and funny moments. It's diverse library of puzzles really kept a lot of my interest, since they get more intricate as you go along. With great visuals, music, and a collection of puzzles this really made me feel like I was in an interactive children book. With normally only text to guide you in this case you have everything else but literature. A stunning adventure that can be yours for 10 bucks.

You can buy Botanicula at these locations:

GOG (Windows version only but you get the most bonuses: soundtrack, wallpapers, design sketches, &c...)

 Steam (Offers Mac and Windows version with purchase)

 Gamers Gate (Offers Mac and Windows version with purchase)

Botanicula.net (Get the Windows, Mac, and Linux version plus the soundtrack for $10 or get the Vinyl)


  1. Pfft, it's not realistic like CoD or Battlefield, so no buy for me!

    Add my GT: xxzzxzxxQu1ikSc0p3zzxzxzvzx
    Add my PSN: XxIc4n5n1p3uRm0M5CrUbxX

    Play some real man, games, nub!

  2. Excellent review -- very detailed and thorough. Totally convinced to check out the game myself even though I'm not much of a gamer. Looking forward to more of your reviews.