Strange Horticulture takes on some big challenges. It’s a carefully authored story that wants to be driven by interaction, and it’s a single-scene play space that wants to create immersion in a whole world. It’s such a tricky line to walk between structured gameplay that’s interactive but dry and a carefully managed story that limits interaction. But with Strange Horticulture, Bad Viking pulls it off. It creates deep immersion in a well-rounded world while starting from a simple place. The filling-out of the world as we played came from our own discoveries, and we were drawn powerfully into the emerging intrigue of the plot.
In Strange Horticulture, Bad Viking has created a mystery story set in a bizarro-style English Lake District, where real-life place names nestle amid castles, stone circles and religious cults. The player runs an apothecary dealing in specialist plants with medicinal, mind-altering, magical and even mechanical effects. Each day, a series of customers arrive at your counter in need of horticultural help. By cross-referencing what’s on your plant shelf with what’s in your plant-cyclopaedia, you identify the salves, syrups and embrocations that are needed. There’s a loop of learning and labelling plants to receive more plants and more info pages that immediately sucks you in.
However, the game soon takes off into more sophisticated spaces. An early in-game decision allows you either to soothe a customer’s ills or exacerbate them – and you must carry the moral doubt of either action when you decide. A gorgeously compelling map invites you to explore the game’s great outdoors, which is done by selecting grid coordinates, after which you receive a text description of what occurs. Hints start to emerge about where interesting spots might be, and the plot thickens as you discover clues buried in letters and items you already had. Before we realised it, we were neck-deep in murderous intrigue, long having crossed the ethical Rubicon, and with a desk piled confoundingly high with documents, scraps of paper, books, tools and maps.
One critical fact about Strange Horticulture is that its screenshots sell it short. It does look attractive – and sounds fantastic too – but the limited variety in the captured images belies the fascinatingly diverse and intricate experience that’s on offer. In this respect, it resembles games like Papers, Please and In Other Waters – and fans of those excellent games really ought to check this out.
Having been released on PC some months ago, Strange Horticulture is, in truth, crying out for a desktop to play on. An onscreen keyboard is sufficient to type out the minimal amount of plant labels, but moving your cursor to shuffle papers, water plants, stroke your cat (yes! and it purrs!), and everything else really needs a mouse (a computer mouse – not for the cat). Compounding things for the Switch is the teeny-tiny text in some places. Whether you’re trying to read on a TV from a distance or on a diddly handheld, it can be a struggle.
Bad Viking and Iceberg Interactive have done everything they can here to mitigate the problems (except for adding mouse support it seems – we did test that). Shoulder buttons and the d-pad are used to scroll or skip different interaction areas of the screen, to reduce pointer usage, and there's a ZL/ZR function to zoom in and out that will give you a fighting chance with the text. The result is… OK. Using a larger OLED Switch in handheld mode, we enjoyed ourselves, but it felt less than ideal. We settled for running most of our playthrough on a desktop monitor as if using a PC. By doing this, we stopped wishing for a mouse before too long and all was right with the world of Switch gaming.
The way Strange Horticulture takes something minimal and spins something grand from it is wonderfully impressive and just pure fun. That initial gameplay loop – search for a plant’s description in a book, find the plant to match it, then get 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 a need to choose a plant from a shelf and a shelf full of plants, suddenly not having the plant you need is very, very meaningful. It's like all you have is a hammer and a box of nails. You’ve been happily hammering away – getting pretty good at it – then suddenly someone shows you a woodscrew. It’s beyond your conceptual realm; you’re befuddled. Then, though, they let you “discover” a screwdriver and it’s as if the world just doubled in size. Each time a new mechanic creeps in, it takes you into a new place, with this joyous feeling of “Wait – there’s more?!”
Combine that drip-fed gameplay with the fluidity of the writing on show and it really is magical. We believed we were scouring unrelated texts and finding our own new connections, and combining analogue objects in ingeniously novel ways. In fact, everything in Strange Horticulture is tightly put together, and there’s not really anything we could have done besides taking the approaches we felt we’d “invented”. It’s a skillful illusion. The balance of reliable, predictable interactions that minimise frustration, with natural-feeling dialogue, text snippets and objects is just delightful. The effectiveness of all this is evidenced by the presence of a very precise and non-spoilery hint system. The game is on-rails enough to be clearly signposted, but so well laid out that we barely felt inclined to touch the hint button at all. We were having too much fun to remember the hint button was even there.
Strange Horticulture’s biggest struggle is shoehorning itself into the Switch’s little screen and thumbstick controls. It does that well enough to preserve its wonder, but if you have a PC to play it on, that might be preferable. It comes from a very simple place: a one-screen playfield with basic, heavily scripted interactions. But that is the perfect backdrop to throw the player’s new discoveries into sharp relief and bring an eerie world and gripping mystery to life. This irresistible immersion stems eventually from a quiet and unassuming start, so stick with it – it’ll grow on you.