With Samorost and Machinarium, Amanita Design had managed to do the unexpected in the adventure game genre, which is to throw away the genre's insistence on logic and reason for puzzles and replace that with a lot of surreal charm instead. Of course, not everyone would be able to stomach the bizarreness of Amanita Design's games, but it is difficult to deny that these games have made the gameplay of just clicking away at on-screen things rather amusing.
However, these previous games by Amanita Design have significant issues, chief of which are tiny on-screen things that need to be clicked on to solve puzzles. They were also linear and gave little significant incentive for the player to seek out anything on-screen to click on other than the objects that leads to progress in the story.
Botanicula addresses all of these issues by making everything on-screen big and vibrant and implementing a system of collectibles that unlocks some additional animations that while short, are very entertaining.
Like the previous games, Botanicula has a very far-fetched premise – perhaps even more so. The game takes place in a mystical world that are littered with massive trees (whether these trees are massive or their inhabitants are relatively small is not entirely clear however) that are capable of sustaining very diverse ecologies. The story takes place on one such tree and starts at its highest canopy, where the protagonists live, and where the story's take on the MacGuffin trope is located.
The prologue also introduces the antagonists, which are amorphous parasites/carnivores (and which are probably the titular characters too) that threaten to suck the life out of anything on the tree. This includes its most-prized bounty, its seed, one of which is under attack by one of the parasites. A twist of fate has the seed coming into the custody of a certain Mr. Lantern, which is a fig-like creature. It is the main protagonist of the game and appears to be the only one of its kind, which may or may not be suggesting something about the backstory.
Anyway, Mr. Lantern summons his friends to his side. There are four of them: the oafish Mr. Poppyhead, the bouncy Mrs. Mushroom, the flight-capable Mr. Feather and reed-thin Mr. Twig. All of them appear to be seed-like creatures, but their bizarre appearance does not end there; some of them, and most other characters in the game, have stilt-like legs that jut out from underneath their bodies. Of course, these are rather common designs for fictional characters with whimsical visuals, but their legs also happen to be arms with which they hold things.
It would be very difficult indeed for any player to not be amused – or at least perturbed - by the silliness of their character designs.
After the prologue has set down the overarching plot of the game, the player is treated to the first screen in the game. Like Amanita Design's previous games, Botanicula plays out via a network of screens; to progress in the game, the player may have to traverse from screen to screen to solve puzzles.
The previous Amanita Design games had made traversing from screen to screen a bit of a chore, as the player has to wait for the protagonists to walk their laidback selves over to where the player wants them to go to. Botanicula does away with this by using whimsical animations for its own protagonists, who hop over excitedly to where they are directed to go to. The player can also double-click on where he/she wants them to scoot over to in order to accelerate their pace. They apparently can even walk upside down, defying gravity.
These designs are very convenient, and very amusing, considering the rather whimsical noises and utterances that they make when they leap from ledge to ledge.
Botanicula, like the earlier Amanita Design games, has the player taking on the role of a disembodied guardian angel again. However, this time around, there are many hints throughout the game to suggest that this is not so, though these hints will not be elaborated here as they constitute spoilers.
Most importantly, the player will not be just clicking away at things to move things along like he/she did in previous games. In addition to solving puzzles through a lot of pointing and clicking, there are collectibles to be obtained by clicking on things other than the objects that need to be clicked on to progress in the game. These lead to amusing and bizarre animations, which then culminate in the player getting a card to add to his/her collection; a visual indicator appears on-screen to inform the player of this.
These cards usually contain briefly animated sprites of the creatures that have been uncovered by clicking on the aforementioned objects, as well as sound clips associated with them. They can be viewed and listened to in the Collection screen, but otherwise there does not appear to be any other interesting aspect about them – at least not until the end of the game. There will not be more elaboration on this, as this would be a spoiler to a pleasant surprise.
The majority of the puzzles in this game involve bizarre creatures but rather believable situations, like having to get from one ledge to another with the help of said bizarre creatures (or removing them from the player's path). As in Machinarium, the solutions for these puzzles involve a mixture of simply looking for things to click on and going to other screens to obtain the items or conditions necessary for the solution. Botanicula has more of the latter than the former, which may make it more familiar to adventure game veterans than the previous games did.
More importantly, Botanicula no longer has frustratingly small objects to click on, unlike its predecessors. Many of the objects that the player has to click on to progress in the story are satisfactorily large and have significant aesthetic contrast with the rest of the screen.
Objects that contribute to collectibles are less visually obvious however, especially for some obscure ones that most players would be unlikely to figure out without the help of guides. These also require the player to click on objects and/or characters in the correct order and/or timing. The optional puzzles that associated with them are a lot more difficult to figure out than the puzzles that progress the story, but they often yield very entertaining results that tend to be worth the trouble.
Some solutions require the use of one of the five protagonists, or a sequence involving all of them. For the former sort of solutions, choosing the wrong one is not necessarily a waste of time; the ensuing cutscenes can be very amusing, and the player may be rewarded with a collectible card as compensation. The latter sort may feel a bit like shoe-horning, but these also benefit from entertaining cutscenes.
As is typical of an Amanita Design game, the visual designs of Botanicula are surreal. However, those who have played Machinarium and the Samorost games may well notice that Botanicula is the thematic opposite of its predecessors, especially Machinarium. There are few metal machines in Botanicula, though there are many organic, plant-based facsimiles of them, which by themselves are already quite interesting. Otherwise, the theme of otherworldly nature is pervasive.
An example of this is the visual design for the bark of the aforementioned mystic tree. Its xylems are transparent, showing the particles of nutrients that are flowing through them, giving the impression that the tree's regulatory systems are more akin to a system of arteries than those that real trees use. Another example is the change in the foliage, from the many leaves at the canopy to the mould that grows at the base of the tree; this provides for variety in the visuals, though the theme of nature remains overarching throughout the game.
The visuals are also far more vibrant than those in previous games. Almost every scene has significant contrast between something and another. Most also have brilliant light sources of various intensities, as well as a vast palette of colours. They are almost to the point of being psychedelic, but fortunately not enough to be convincingly so for most players. On the other hand, Botanicula's visuals can be off-putting to those who prefer the more moderate visuals seen in Amanita Design's previous games, or other adventure games, for that matter.
That is not to say that Botanicula is vibrant and cheery all over. There are themes of tragedy and impending doom, as depicted by the advance of the aforementioned amorphous parasites. Places that they have ravaged are still, flushed of colour, hollow and generally demure. The visual contrast serves to emphasize the fear of these parasite-carnivores in other creatures, which live in livelier parts of the tree.
As for the creatures in the game, they are probably even more varied than the backdrops. The visuals for the motley crew of protagonists have already been described, as are the aforementioned amorphous parasites.
However, the parasites are worth mentioning again as they are deceptively simple-looking and lazily designed. They are depicted as fuzzy/blurry tufts of black with limbs that resemble strands of hair and a bright yellow eye, but such simple visuals would not prepare the player for their disturbing animations. To cite some examples, their limbs also happen to be their proboscises, and their eyes are also their mouths.
The other characters offer staggering variety in their aesthetic designs. There are tribes of what appear to be sentient chestnuts, colonies of feral ants and anthropomorphic bugs, among other bizarre but not necessarily visually unpleasant creatures. Some of them are also homage to popular culture, such as a slightly creepy version of Santa Claus and Amanita Design's spoof of Pac-Man. Encountering these for the first time can be in itself an incentive to play the game; their sprites are rarely recycled for different characters, except for those that apparently belong to the same social group.
Speaking of sprites, Botanicula may well be the title with the most immense variety in sprites and artwork among games that use 2-D visuals thus far. Considering the pervasiveness of 3-D graphics in digital games at the time of this writing, that Botanicula features very worthwhile 2-D eye-candy is a very refreshing change; it is also evidence of Amanita Design's commitment to the point-and-click subgenre of adventure games.
At first impressions, the aural designs for the game may seem too whimsical, even to the point of being lackadaisical. Botanicula is a lot less aurally subdued than previous Amanita Design games, but this is not necessarily a convincing improvement.
Most of the sound clips in the game are made using the human voice, which may make them seem silly. Furthermore, some sound clips are recycled for different scenarios and different characters, which can seem a bit disappointing, especially considering the variety in the visual designs of Botanicula. On the other hand, the repetition of such sound clips is only just noticeable, and one would be a harsh person indeed if he/she deems the repetition to be too much.
Botanicula has more voice-acting than previous Amanita Design games, but this is not exactly for the better. All of it is gibberish; the message that needs to be given is instead delivered through speech bubbles that appear above the heads of the talking character and which provide visualization of said message; this happens to be a staple presentation technique in Amanita Design games. The gibberish would not be too grating, but for discerning players, they would seem inconsequential, considering that the speech bubbles have already done most of the work of exposition.
The music is the better portion of Botanicula's audio designs. The music is also better at showcasing the talent of Czech alternative band DVA, who made the audio designs for Botanicula. They are not Tomáš Dvořák (who did the audio designs for previous Amanita Design games), but this difference is not necessarily for the worse; in fact, this may well be a welcome change for those who are tired of the pleasant but otherwise meek musical tracks in the previous games.
In contrast, the tracks in Botanicula are much more assertive, and more importantly, unlikely to have been heard before in video games (as is typical of alternative music). The gibberish lyrics and non-orchestral instruments may sound otherworldly and even disconcerting to those who are not expecting them, but to jaded ears that are aching for something new, they are very refreshing.
Amanita Design has never bothered to write anything substantial for the backstory of their games, though for Botanicula, there has been an attempt of sorts. Certain characters in the game provide exposition on how the world of Botanicula came to be, but these mainly have the goal of reminding the player of the overarching plot of saving life itself from the voracious parasites.
Botanicula features some technical and practical improvements over previous Amanita Design games. The first of these is that Botanicula offers a much longer experience that is better at justifying its asking price. Secondly, it is much less of a Flash-powered game than Samorost and Machinarium are. The player can no longer skip forward in the story by merely accessing files in the installation directory, because Botanicula has benefited from packaging that is more sophisticated than just a directory of SWF files.
To summarize this review, Botanicula is evidence of convincing effort by Amanita Design to address issues with its previous games, as well as to distance itself away from the perception of merely using Flash to design its games. The bizarre settings and noticeable recycling of whimsical audio clips may be off-putting to some players, especially those that are not already patrons of Amanita Design's products, but to those who are tired of the usual offerings by the adventure game genre, Botanicula is a breath of fresh air.