Strange Horticulture takes on great challenges. It’s a carefully written story that wants to be driven by interaction, and it’s a single-scene playspace that wants to create immersion in a whole world. It’s such a difficult line to walk between a structured game that’s interactive but dry and a carefully managed story that limits interaction. But with Strange Horticulture, Bad Viking pulls it off. He creates a deep dive into a complete world while starting from a simple place. The padding of the world as we played came from our own discoveries, and we were powerfully drawn to the emerging intrigue of the plot.
In Strange Horticulture, Bad Viking has created a mystery story set in a bizarrely styled English Lake District, where real-life place names nestle amongst castles, stone circles and religious cults. The player runs an apothecary dealing in specialized plants with medicinal, hallucinogenic, magical, and even mechanical effects. Every day, a number of customers come to his counter looking for horticultural help. By cross-referencing what’s on your plant shelf with what’s in your plant cyclopedia, you identify the salves, syrups, and sausages that are needed. There is a plant learning and tagging cycle to receive more plants and more pages of information that immediately engage you.
However, the game soon takes off into more sophisticated spaces. An early decision in the game allows you to calm a client’s ills or exacerbate them, and you must have the moral doubt of any action when you decide. A gorgeously engaging map invites you to explore the game’s great outdoors, which is done by selecting grid coordinates, after which you’re given a text description of what happens. Clues begin to emerge as to where interesting places might be, and the plot thickens as you uncover clues buried in letters and items you already owned. Before we knew it, we were up to our necks in murderous intrigue, having long since crossed the ethical Rubicon, and with a desk littered with documents, scraps of paper, books, tools, and maps.
A critical fact about Strange Horticulture is that its screenshots fall short. It looks appealing, and it sounds fantastic too, but the limited variety in the images captured belies the fascinatingly diverse and intricate experience on offer. In this sense, it resembles games like papers please and In Other Waters, and fans of those great games should check it out.
Having only been released for PC a few months ago, Strange Horticulture is seriously crying out for a desktop to play on. An on-screen keyboard is enough to type the minimum number of plant labels, but moving your cursor around to shuffle papers, water plants, pet your cat (yes! and it purrs!), and everything else really needs a mouse (a computer mouse: not for the cat). To complicate things for Switch, the text is tiny in places. Whether you’re trying to read on a TV remote or a diddly handheld, it can be a struggle.
Bad Viking and Iceberg Interactive have gone to great lengths here to mitigate the issues (except for adding mouse support, apparently we tested it). The shoulder buttons and d-pad are used to scroll or bypass different areas of screen interaction, to reduce pointer use, and there’s a ZL/ZR zoom function that will give you a fighting chance with text. . The result is… OK. Using a larger OLED switch in handheld mode we had fun with it, but it felt less than ideal. We settled for running most of our game on a desktop monitor as if we were using a PC. By doing this, we stopped wishing for a mouse in no time and all was well with the world of Switch gaming.
The way Strange Horticulture takes something minimal and turns it into something great is wonderfully impressive and just plain fun. That initial game cycle – looking up a plant description in a book, finding the plant that matches it, and then being rewarded with another plant or another page for the book – sets up a deceptively powerful mechanism for expanding the world. When all you have is the need to pick a plant off a shelf and a shelf full of plants, suddenly not having the plant you need is very, very significant. It’s like all you have is a hammer and a box of nails. You’ve been hammering away happily, doing pretty good, and suddenly someone shows you a wood screw. It is beyond your conceptual scope; you are stunned Then, though, they let you “discover” a screwdriver and it’s like the world has doubled in size. Every time a new mechanic comes along, it takes you to a new place, with this joyful feeling of “Wait, is there more?”
Combine that drip-fed gameplay with the fluidity of writing on the show and it really is magic. We believed we were exploring unrelated texts and finding our own new connections, and combining analogous objects in ingeniously new ways. In fact, everything in Strange Horticulture is very much tied together, and there really isn’t anything we could have done other than adopt the approaches we felt we had “invented”. It’s a clever illusion. The balance of reliable and predictable interactions that minimize frustration, with dialogue, snippets of text, and objects that feel natural is simply delightful. The effectiveness of all this is evidenced by the presence of a very accurate and spoiler-free hint system. The game is on rails enough to be clearly signposted, but it’s so well designed that we hardly feel inclined to touch the hint button. We were having too much fun to remember the hint button was there.
Strange Horticulture’s biggest struggle is shoehorning itself into the Switch’s small screen and joystick controls. It does well enough to preserve your wonder, but if you have a PC to play on, that might be preferable. It comes from a very simple place: a single-screen playfield with basic, heavily scripted interactions. But that’s the perfect backdrop to highlight the player’s new discoveries and bring to life a spooky world and gripping mystery. This irresistible dive stems ultimately from a quiet, unassuming start, so stick with it, it will grow on you.