Genre: Puzzle, Adventure
System: Nintendo Switch (also available on Steam)
Developers | Publishers: Bad Viking | Iceberg Interactive
Age Rating: US E10+ | EU 7+
Price: US $14.99 | UK £12.99 | EU € 13,49
Release Date: July 28th, 2022
Review code used, with many thanks to Iceberg Interactive.
I’ve always paid little attention to flora. Couldn’t tell you the names of trees; generally hopeless with plants. Then Strange Horticulture made me a plant detective.
I scrutinized stems and petals. Observed size, coloration, odor. With my growing planty knowledge, recorded in a well-thumbed encyclopedia, I tackled a big-time occult murder mystery and saved tons of innocent lives! Not bad at all. Indeed, you need be no anthophile to enjoy and succeed in Strange Horticulture.
It’s a story-driven puzzle game. But its unique presentation bears little resemblance to typical games in the puzzle and adventure genres.
My Hero, Horticultural
In Moonlighter, which I enjoyed a few years ago, you play shopkeeper instead of action hero. You still fight in dungeons, but the whole idea of Moonlighter was being a guy behind the counter instead of the guy saving the world. In Strange Horticulture, you experience that refreshing change of roles.
You run a plant shop, supplying remedies. Your customers are the ones sticking their noses into dangerous affairs. By aiding them, you help save the world (kind of).
You do leave the shop sometimes, to scour an England-like countryside for new plants and clues. But most of the time, you’re behind the counter identifying plants.
The Power of Plants
The game is divided into 16 days. Each day, a handful of customers appear—folks who become recurring cast members of this story.
They may be suffering from digestive problems, eye strain, anxiety, etc. Or they might need a boost of courage, luck, or strength before some daunting task. Each person asks for a specific remedy, and it’s your job to choose the right plant from your shelves.
These plants are pretty darn cool. There’s one that detects poison. One opens any lock (what?!). Another helps you see better. Another makes you hear better.
They’re fictional. But if it weren’t for the plant that opens locked doors, you could have convinced me that the flora of Strange Horticulture were real-life specimens. Their encyclopedia entries, including made-up Latin names, were just that well-written.
Plant Detective in the House
You’ll pore over that encyclopedia a lot. For most of the game, you examine unidentified plants and match them to pages in your encyclopedia. This is the game’s most frequent type of puzzle. While not difficult, it does take a little reading and thinking. The answers are all there but oh so subtle, which is fantastic.
Delivering the right plants to customers rewards you with two things: a new encyclopedia page and “the will to explore” (more on that later).
Meanwhile, delivering the wrong plant punishes you with “a rising sense of dread”. This possibility of punishment adds a delicious tension. Mess up too many times and you have a mental breakdown of sorts. But don’t worry, you can recover by solving yet another puzzle. I found these penalty puzzles fun—and also pretty cool because they fit the theme of recovering from a shattered mind or mental prison.
After Closing Hours
When you have sufficient “will to explore,” pick a spot on your Tolkien-worthy world map. But you aren’t supposed to waste time on random spots. This, too, is a puzzle. Hints about where to find new plants come from customers, as well as from cards in a mysterious deck.
You open one new card from this deck at the end of each day. It’s not a tarot deck but feels like one. Along with the card, you read an enigmatic story. You also see a moon, gradually unveiling. Clearly, all this is headed somewhere, but for now it is murky and ominous. This part of the day always feels like a dream. Maybe it is? Just another slice of the game’s lovely, strange atmosphere.
This daily routine of research-and-reward is surprisingly addictive. I kept going: just one more customer, one more click, please! And when I least expected it, new mechanics were introduced.
I finished Strange Horticulture in several hours, including a short but satisfying post-game. The game has multiple endings, though I was content to leave it at a single playthrough. Those several hours felt rich and dense, yet well-paced.
I enjoyed the gradually unfolding story, which was low-key but sinister. The atmosphere is somber and creepy, yet somehow beautiful. Yeah, it’s a little dark and deals with the occult, but does so without shoving pitchfork-and-horns in your face. I promise it’s tween-friendly.
Read The Fine Print
Do you have to love plants? Again, no! (Honestly, I’m still not very interested in plants.) But to enjoy this game, you shouldn’t be averse to reading.
Also, if you’re playing it on the Switch instead of PC, be prepared to squint. While the Switch version has wonderful zoom in-and-out buttons and precise touchscreen controls, it’s easy to wish you were playing on the PC instead.
Playing on a Switch Lite, my experience of the game was plagued by having to constantly adjust screen size, pan the camera, and manage items within a confined space. To avoid this bothersome maneuvering, I often used a zoomed-out view. But this resulted in eye-strain (now, which remedy was that?). Peering at small text font, tiny flowers, and delicate leaves left me feeling tired.
Strange Horticulture is a beautiful investigative game. I was drawn in by immersive writing, simple but rewarding gameplay, and a fine level of polish in visual and sound effects. I loved the quiet, mysterious atmosphere and well-designed puzzles. But looking back, what I liked most were tiny details—sounds, especially. Crinkled pages turning, shop bell ringing, drops of water falling.
It’s an experience you want to soak in. That makes Strange Horticulture more than just a puzzle game.
If not for inconvenient maneuvering around the interface, I would readily give the Switch version a “Two Thumbs Up”. I imagine the PC version to be a much better, if not perfect, experience.
Sounds like Recettear except, in Recettear, you actually go with the adventurer to the dungeons.
Hello suburbantimewaster, thanks for your comment. I’ve been intrigued by Recettear. Hope I get a chance to try the game someday. It sounds a lot closer to Moonlighter than to Strange Horticulture, as in Moonlighter there’s real shop-management mechanics (e.g. decide what to sell and for how much) while Horticulture doesn’t truly involve managing the shop (that’s just the story but not the actual mechanics).
I just started playing this and I agree with everything you said. The game really drops you into the story with little to no explanation, which may be rewarding to some but frustrating to others. I realize now though I think that’s just part of the puzzle game genre. You kinda just have to get in there and figure things out. I’m so accustomed to being walked through a game in the beginning with some kind of in-game tutorial that it was a little intimidating to even start. However, once I slowed down my mind and started really looking at everything, taking in all the details and whatnot, I really started to appreciate the the level to detail and the amount of critical thinking required to advance. I’m glad to hear there are multiple endings because I’m pretty sure i’m going to want to do another playthrough!
I will check out the other games mentioned in the comments but if you have any other similar recommendations, I’d love to hear them. Thanks for the review!
Hey Kristine, thanks for sharing your thoughts on Strange Horticulture! You’re right; the tutorial is minimal. While I can’t think of a game that’s very similar to this one, some folks online have recommended “Wytchwood” and “Potion Craft” for similar themes (crafting and witchy/alchemist vibes). I haven’t played them myself so I don’t know how similar or dissimilar they are in terms of puzzle or storytelling, but they’re well-rated games!